The Missouri 21st Century Transportation System Task Force held a meeting in Jefferson City Wednesday.

I-70 corridor in Missouri, photo courtesy of MODOT

The first portion of the two-hour forum dealt with the distribution of money for roads while the second half centered on way to increase transportation funding.

During four previous sessions held over four months in various locations around the state, there were questions of whether funding was being distributed fairly.

At an August hearing in Springfield, two individuals testified back-to-back, arguing from opposite points of view.  One person claimed rural roads are crumbling because most of the money is sent to urban areas.  The other insisted that rural areas are well taken care while infrastructure in metro areas is collapsing.

There was no public testimony at Wednesday’s meeting, but there was still plenty of bickering among task force members over the perceived problem.

Two former members of the state Transportation Commission, the body charged with distributing road money, defended to current funding formula.  Ex commissioner Jim Simpson said the arrangement has largely been effective since its inception in 2003.

“In 14 years it has worked well,” said Simpson.  “Is it perfect?  Probably not.  But I think it is formula based on objective analysis, on needs analysis.  It is about as fair and equitable, I think, as one could find.”

Simpson noted there had been a roughly 50-50 split between urban and rural funding over the past 10 years, and said the real problem is a lack of resources for all regions of the state.

Some task force members complained that the committee was losing its way by spending so much time debating where the money was going to.  Republican State Senator Dave Schatz of Sullivan, who is Vice-Chairman of the task force, warned members that in-fighting over distribution of money would threaten any spending plan they might place before voters.

“As part of being a package that goes to the general public in order to get them to invest in transportation, we’re going to lose the argument at the end of the day when it becomes (a fight) over rural versus urban, Franklin County over St. Louis County, or any other part of this state,” said Schatz.  “We live in Missouri.”

The task force also spent time discussing the ramifications of losing matching federal dollars when the state can’t come up with its contribution for a project.  Republican Representative Kevin Corlew of Kansas City, who chairs the task force, thinks it’s highly important to have enough transportation funding to cover those costs.

“When a federal program is there that says ‘We have this money available if you match us’, if we don’t have it as a state, we lose out,” said Corlew.

Missouri’s current arrangement for matching federal transportation money is an 80%-to20% split, meaning that for every $1 shelled out by the state, the federal government chips in $4.

The task force meeting eventually segued into a discussion about options to boost funding for roads.

In 2016, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) invested $1.388 billion on state roads and bridges.  The agency has pegged the need for additional funding at $825 million.

MoDOT Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger noted that the motor fuel tax hasn’t been increased since 1996, and said a sizable boost would be needed just to keep up with inflation.    “Really just to get back to even, we’re talking something between eight and ten cents a gallon,” said Hassinger.

Senator Schatz said a group of task force members he’s personally met with agrees that voters should be asked to cast a ballot on a motor fuel tax increase.  “That’s looking at somewhere (in the) ten cent area, as far as the increase in the motor fuel tax, maybe with a disparity of an additional tax on diesel.”

Republican Senator Bill Eigel of St. Charles said he would never support any tax hike, but offered a revenue neutral idea for increasing road funding.  “I do think that there could be broader support in adjusting something as the fuel tax if it was done in conjunction with a broader tax reform package that reduced the overall tax burdens on the people of the state of Missouri,” said Eigel.

Eigel’s comments were no surprise to other lawmakers who are members of the task force.  He’s indicated numerous times that he would be resistant any revenue stream that included a tax increase, saying Missouri’s $27 Billion budget is enough of a tax burden.

Task Force Chairman Corlew has concluded that the committee should release a three-part report when it finishes its business in January.  He said it should make an immediate recommendation for investment in roads, offer a more sustainable long-term revenue source (to offset the increase in hybrid and electric vehicles), and identify legislative measure to help stabilize the transportation system.

The Transportation Task Force is next scheduled to hold a hearing next Wednesday, October 18th in St. Louis.