Rural transportation in Missouri 'in crisis'
A top transportation official in Missouri says an ongoing drop in earmarked revenue is jeopardizing the state's system of rural roads and bridges.
Stephen Miller, chair of the Missouri Highways and Transportation commission, told Farm Bureau members in Jefferson City Wednesday that the state is experiencing a transportation crisis, and that a recently scaled-back road maintenance program is a product of the dropping revenue.
"You probably heard that we had a nice uptick in our economy that actually brought us more money than we anticipated this last year that allowed us to meet our federal match," Miller said. "The danger is, people think 'problem solved?' No, we went from a complete disaster to just a mitigated disaster."
Miller continued, "Even with that slight bump in revenue, we're going to have the lowest number of contract awards that we've had in this state in almost 20 years; you have to go back to 1997."
Missouri's 325 system, adopted in February, provides full maintenance for only 8,000 miles of roads and bridges, and classifies them as "primary." The remaining 26,000 miles of roads and bridges are classified as "supplementary," with maintenance limited mainly to snow removal and pothole repair.
The vast bulk of Missouri's lettered state roads are classified as supplementary under the new system.
It's named "Missouri 325" because the most recent financial estimates show MoDOT only have $325 million a year for road and bridge maintenance by the year 2017.
Miller said the need is especially critical for bridges, telling Farm Bureau members that 641 bridges across Missouri are currently in "critical condition."
"That doesn't even count the almost 1,400 bridges that are weight-limited," Miller said, "meaning you may not be able to take your (farm) goods across them, or school buses or emergency vehicles may not be able to go across them, or even our MoDOT vehicles that want to plow your roads or fix them may not be able to go across them."
The current condition of Interstate highway 70 is also adding to Missouri's transportation crisis, according to Miller.
"I-70 is used up," Miller said. "(The highway) may have a nice, smooth veneer on the top, but below that (it) is rotten and decayed...we must tear out I-70 down to the bare ground and rebuild it."
He also told the crowd that Missouri should keep all options on the table, including turning I-70 into a toll road. That proposal is strongly supported by Governor Jay Nixon and strongly opposed by lawmakers.
"I-70 affects everyone of us in this room, even if you never travel on it," Miller told the crowd. "I-70 is the economic engine for this state; it connects our two largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. Sixty percent of our entire state population resides within a 30-mile band on either side of I-70...that means the taxes and the revenues and the consumers, etc., all those things that drive our state economy are all relying upon a healthy I-70."
Missouri voters last year overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 7, which would have raised the state's sales tax by .75 percent for 10 years, with all revenue generated going towards transportation needs across the state.
Miller says the state needs to raise its fuel tax, a position supported by both MoDOT and the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Missouri's fuel tax is 17 cents a gallon for both gasoline and diesel. A bill that would have raised it to 19 cents a gallon for gas and 21 cents a gallon for diesel died in the Missouri Senate earlier this year.
"A fuel tax...is truly a user fee; it's being funded by the people that are using the roads," Miller said. "It does not redistribute wealth...people pay for what they use."
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport