MoDOT's rough road to finding more funding continues
Missouri’s General Assembly adjourned this month without addressing a projected budget shortfall that transportation officials say will devastate the state’s roads and bridges over the next few years. Despite widespread agreement that Missouri’s Department of Transportation is in dire need of new funding to maintain the nation’s seventh largest highway system, getting state lawmakers to agree on how to pay for it – be it through increasing the sales tax, fuel tax, or cutting other state services – is now the biggest challenge.
Shutting Down Services
"We're in crisis ... We have never been in a position where we've had to tell the voters we simply can't take care of the system anymore and we're shutting down services..."
“We’re in a crisis,” said Highways and Transportation Commission Chair Steve Miller. “Our state has never been in this position before. We have never been in a position where we’ve had to tell the voters we simply can’t take care of the system anymore and we’re shutting down services.”
Most of MoDOT’s funding comes from a 17-cent fuel tax that hasn’t changed in 20 years, he said. With currency inflation, more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road and rising construction costs, MoDOT’s budget has dwindled from $1.3 billion in 2009 to less $700 million this year and is expected to drop to $325 million by 2017.
As a result, the department has already begun cost-cutting measures, scaling back services and reducing staff, facilities and equipment. Last year, MoDOT suspended its Cost Share/Economic Development program that provides financial assistance and resources for local road projects that aim to create jobs and spur economic growth.
Wear and Tear
MoDOT has also already closed 6 bridges across the state indefinitely because they are no longer safe and there is not enough money to fix them.
Many other bridges in need of major rehabilitation work have instead been given patches and temporary repairs. For instance, the I-270 overpasses at New Florissant Road and New Halls Ferry Road in North St. Louis County have metal nets fastened underneath to prevent crumbling concrete from landing on traffic below. MoDOT plans this summer to construct a structural overlay on the overpasses to keep them operational until funding is available for replacement.
The most drastic response to MoDOT’s growing budget constraints is its so-called 325 System. It takes about $485 million to take care of the entire state system in its current condition and, without additional funding, the department’s 325 System will only fully maintain the state’s so-called “primary” roads. Starting in 2017, MoDOT will focus its $325 million budget on maintaining roughly a quarter of the state’s 34,000 miles of roads.
“So roads like Lindbergh, Manchester, Olive, Clarkson, Highway K, Gravois. We will not be doing any construction projects on those,” said Greg Horn, MoDOT’s regional engineer for the St. Louis area. "We’re not going to abandon them. We’re going to patch potholes, plow snow and mow the grass, but that’s about it.”
Facing such severe cuts in services, MoDOT and other officials have in the past year embarked on an unprecedented campaign to convince the public that Missouri’s road infrastructure is woefully underfunded. The department has issued numerous press releases and conducted a series of news conferences across the state in an effort to highlight the problem and generate support of a solution.
Increasing the Fuel Tax
A proposal to increase the state’s fuel tax was MoDOT’s most recent chance for securing more funding. State Senator Doug Libla (R-Poplar Bluff) sponsored a bill to increase the tax on gasoline by 1.5 cents and on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents. If it had passed, the Senate projected it would have raised about $54 million a year for transportation infrastructure.
Supporters said it was especially important this year in order to keep federal matching funds for 2017. According to MoDOT, the state will lose $167 million in federal transportation funds, if the state does not come up with an additional $42 million in revenue.
But the Show-Me state’s aversion to raising taxes had lawmakers in Jefferson City standing firm this session. Libla’s Senate Bill 540, ulitmately died in committee. 2nd District State Senator Bob Onder of St. Charles County said he would have supported that fuel tax increase if it were made revenue neutral by a proportionate cut in income taxes.
“Because after all, taxes on food or on fuel are regressive. They disproportionately impact poor people so a lot of us supported a balancing income tax decrease,” he said.
Senator Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph acknowledged MoDOT’s funding problems, but said he favored finding the money from elsewhere in the state’s $26 billion budget.
“It’s just real simple: I’m a Republican and the Republican platform says that we should not balance the budget with new taxes,” he said. “I just feel if we’re going to ask Missourians to kick in another $100 million they ought to have a vote.”
Last year, Missouri voters rejected a ballot initiative to increase the state sales tax by three quarters of a cent to help maintain the state’s highway system.