Missouri transportation officials say the state still needs a way to pay for full maintenance of its highways and bridges, and are hoping for a solution from the legislature in 2016. Several legislators have indicated that the issue will be a priority in the next regular session.
A proposal to increase Missouri’s fuel tax didn’t come to a vote in this year’s session. Senator Doug Libla (R-Poplar Bluff) told Missourinet he will offer a bill again in 2016 and as the chair of the Senate’s transportation committee he will entertain any other proposals that are offered.
He still favors an increase in the gas tax.
“You kind of pay as you go,” Libla said of the fuel tax. “I like that a lot, and then the people that use the highways help maintain them and help build new ones. I think the motor fuel tax has precedent … 91 years of it. It’s a practical way to collect the money and it’s also predictable.”
Highway Commission Chairman Stephen Miller said he continues to make his case not just to lawmakers but to the general public that more money is needed. He wants Missourians to see additional dollars for roads and bridges as an investment.
“They’ve asked us to run this department as a business and we’ve tried to respond to that call,” said Miller. “We have done what almost no other government agency in Missouri or other states have done, where we have downsized our workforce by 20-percent … we’ve sold off 124 facilities and 744 pieces of equipment. We’ve done all that, and they’ve asked us to act like a business but then nobody wants to fund us like a business. What business could survive without working capital, without funding? We rely totally on our citizens. We don’t have products to sell, goods to sell. What we have is services to provide in transportation, but unless people are willing to pay for it, how can we run like a business?”
Miller said in states that have increased funding for transportation, it has been seen as an investment that supports economic development.
“We’re in a trans-global economy where we’re not only competing among cities and states, but we’re competing worldwide,” said Miller. “People are looking where to go and the major drivers, we all know, are two things. An educated workforce and a transportation system.”
Miller said there is frustration not only in Missouri but at the national level about how to fund transportation.
“It just a little bit defies logic and common sense,” said Miller. “I think historically we have always had passionate views about how we ought to invest public funds in social programs and other things but the areas where we never had a disagreement were national defense and infrastructure. The frustration’s just not Missouri, it’s also manifest on the federal level. The one area where Democrats and Republicans could always agree upon was a six-year plan for building our highway program, and now we can see we’re on our thirty-fourth extension where we are unable to get basic agreement.”
During the session, lawmakers were told the passage of Libla’s proposed fuel tax increase was needed to eliminate a risk that Missouri would lose federal transportation dollars. Since then, Miller says improvements in car sales and other unexpected boosts in the economy mean that Missouri is no longer in danger of losing that money.
“It was accurate to say at the time that based on the revenue projections … that we were going to have a shortfall in our local, state funds that we would normally use to match,” said Miller.
He said what he hopes Missourians will focus on is that meeting the federal match requirement is not the goal.
“I’m happy that we have that money … but this isn’t kind of the disciplined funding approach that you can move a system forward, and we would be so foolish to think that, you know, ‘Problem solved,'” said Miller. “Just meeting federal match just keeps us at the same, mediocre funding we’ve always been before. Until we figure out how to add money, either through a bigger federal program or a state program or both, we are not going to be able to achieve even the goal of preserving the current system.”
Miller said one thing working against transportation funding, not just in Missouri but elsewhere, is the position of many lawmakers that they do not want to raise taxes.
“They pledge, they take this conscientious objection to raising taxes for any reason, and that makes a tough dialog in the state of Missouri,” said Miller.
Still, he said he is hopeful about some mechanism being passed even in with the general election looming – a time when lawmakers might be even more hesitant to support an issue they believe will be unpopular with voters.
“I do see that we’re moving that needle a little bit more. I’m hopeful about the commitment of the governor, who came out last year and really supported the idea of the fuel tax … I’m hopeful about our new speaker, who I think has an interest in transportation … we’ll wait to see who the new president pro tem of the senate is,” said Miller. “I feel that we’re getting some traction with leadership that, maybe I haven’t felt as positive in the past.”