A 23 member panel created by the state legislature this year is holding its third of six public meetings at different locations around the state on Wednesday afternoon.
The 21st Century Transportation Task Force is gathering in northeast Missouri’s Kirksville. The group’s stated mission is to assess the state road system and determine the funding source and level needed to sustain it.
Financing is currently funneled through through user fees, the motor fuel tax, the sales tax on vehicle purchases, and registration and driver’s license fees.
Missouri faces hurdles unseen in most other states because it maintains all of its lettered roads that would otherwise be handled at the county level. As a result, it has the seventh largest road system with over 33,000 miles.
But its current funding level is 47th in the country. The low ranking has been attributed to a failure to adjust the user fees for inflation over time.
The motor fuel tax was last increased 21 years ago by 6 cents, as part of a bipartisan 1992 deal agreed upon by former Governor John Ashcroft (R) and a legislature controlled by Democrats. Fees for vehicle registration and drivers’ licenses have not increased since 1984, while some other fees haven’t increased since 1969.
At least two Republican lawmakers on the task force agree on a plan to address the funding needs. Both Representative Bill Reiboldt of Neosho and Senator Dave Schatz of Sullivan think the motor fuel tax should be hiked by 10 cents a gallon.
Schatz says the increase would be enough to have an immediate impact on roads. “It would address the needs that we have going forward, probably for a length of time,” says Schatz. “It may not be the end all, do all as far as into the future, but obviously it would be very impactful right off the bat. And (we’d be) able to make sure that we’re doing more than just maintaining…treading water.”
A ten cent rise would bring Missouri into closer proximity with most of its eight surrounding states. A similar hike in Iowa brought its fuel tax up to 30 cents a gallon in 2015. The governor and legislature passed the increase there.
But under a law known within the Missouri Constitution as the Hancock Amendment, voters in the Show-Me state would have to approve any meaningful tax increase.
Recent highway funding proposals haven’t been well received by Missouri voters. In 2014, they roundly rejected a plan by lawmakers for a constitutional amendment that would have increased Missouri’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent for 10 years.
The boost would have raised an estimated $5.4 billion over its lifetime. Several other measures in previous years also failed to generate sufficient ballot support.
Schatz thinks voters will face unfavorable consequences if they continue rejecting proposals that lawmakers place before them. “The legislature is either going to have to do something, or we’re ultimately going to be faced with a decision that some areas are going to probably have some diminished services at some point in time. And they’re not going to like that at all either.”
The first term state Senator thinks it might require a drastic event to get people to reconsider transportation funding. “When that flood occurred here this year, having the interstate shut down, people said ‘Wow, that’s a big deal’,” Schatz says.
Historical flooding in late April and early May wiped out the pavement on a section of I-44 south of Rolla. Crews had to apply a fresh coat of asphalt, which left the highway closed for several days. Flooding from the same storms closed another section of I-44 near St. Louis for numerous days.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has pegged the cost to fully finance the state’s transportation needs at an additional $825 million per year.
Broken down, those expenses include $170 million to maintain roadways, $275 million in economic development and safety projects, $300 million to reconstruct interstate highways, and $80 million to improve mobility options.
One Republican lawmaker on the task force, Senator Bill Eigel of St. Charles, is against raising any taxes to pay for transportation. “I think there is a lot of frustration out there from citizens who are tired of government officials solving problems simply by asking the taxpayer for more money,” says Eigel.
Among other things, Eigel would like to see the state stop paying for the entire 33,000 mile network it currently supports.
A Democratic member of the task force, Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider, is frustrated with what he sees at GOP obstruction to road funding.
“That seems to be the Republican dogma right now, that we shouldn’t have any taxes for any reason, no matter what,” Schneider says. “That mentality needs to change, so that we’ll be more open minded to embrace progress. We could find intelligent ways to make the progress, rather than be obstructionist to progress.”
The Kirksville 21st Century Transportation Task Force hearing takes place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. The topic at this meeting will be “The Future of Transportation (modern technology); beyond roads and bridges (other modes, transit, etc.).”