Lawmakers Look for Road Funds in Unusual Places

One state's lawmakers are looking beyond the usual places for funding road and bridge repairs after they promised to make it a priority this session.

📅   Wed March 09, 2016 - Midwest Edition
Adam Aton - ASSOCIATED PRESS


One state's lawmakers are looking beyond the usual places for funding road and bridge repairs after they promised to make it a priority this session.
One state's lawmakers are looking beyond the usual places for funding road and bridge repairs after they promised to make it a priority this session.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) Missouri lawmakers are looking beyond the usual places for funding road and bridge repairs after they promised to make it a priority this session.

House Republicans hope to send the Senate a budget that includes roughly $30 million to revive the Missouri Department of Transportation's cost-sharing program. The department typically splits half the cost of an infrastructure project with a local government.

The only other transportation funding likely to materialize this year, said House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, is if voters approve an increase to the tobacco tax in November. Other tobacco tax increases failed in 2002, 2006 and 2012, though the latest fell short by only 1.5 percentage points.

The Senate is slated to debate raising the fuel tax by 1.5 cents for gasoline and 3.5 cents for diesel, a proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Doug Libla with support from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. But it faces strong headwinds: Many Republicans in the Senate — several of whom face primaries in their campaigns for higher office — are reluctant to raise taxes, and House Speaker Todd Richardson has ruled out any tax increases.

About 640 of Missouri's 10,400 bridges are in critical condition, and more than 1,300 have weight restrictions. Eleven percent of Missouri's major roads and 22 percent of its minor state roads are in poor condition. And Interstate 70, which was designed to have a 20-year life expectancy when it was built in the 1950s and 1960s, has been estimated to cost at least $2 billion to rebuild and widen.

After Missouri voters rejected a transportation sales tax in 2014, the department warned its budget would drop too low to maintain much of the state's infrastructure. But higher-than-expected revenues coupled with the first federal highway bill to pass in more than seven years have eased the department's financial crunch.

Without the previous sense of emergency, Republican lawmakers will likely be satisfied with a “kick-the-can-down-the-road solution' they can present to the public as progress, said Rep. Tom McDonald, the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee.

Republicans' plan to shift money to roadwork without new taxes takes away from education, said Rep. Sharon Pace, the ranking Democrat on transportation's appropriations committee.

Transportation officials say they need about $160 million in additional funding to adequately maintain the system, improve bridge conditions and restart a cost-sharing program.

By the time they would be fully phased in, a 23-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes and a 5 percent increase for other tobacco products are estimated to bring in around $100 million annually. The fuel tax is estimated to bring more than $55 million annually. And $30 million for a cost-sharing program could possibly result in another $30 million contributed from local governments, but transportation officials don't view that approach as a long-term solution.

The “very large variables' of relying on “cash-strapped' local governments as well as yearly appropriations from the Legislature make a cost-sharing program ill-suited for addressing the state's most critical needs, Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, wrote in his Feb. 16 newsletter.

Richardson said a cost-sharing program won't solve all the state's problems, but it could address some “one-time projects' that are especially important to the state's economy.

“Nobody's suggesting that MoDOT go build a highway plan on cost-share dollars,' Richardson said. “We're going to need to find a way to solve our interstate problems at some point... and we've got a group of legislators that are continuing to work on that problem.'