Local county officials continue to push back against any effort on the state level to transfer maintenance of roads to them.
The move has often been brought up in the legislature as a way to downsize what amounts to the seventh largest road system in the country. The General Assembly starts its 2019 session Wednesday in Jefferson City.
In 1952, Missouri lawmakers passed a one-cent fuel tax increase from 2 to 3 cents and agreed to take over maintenance of many county roads, which today are signed with letters. At 19,042 miles, lettered roads make up well over half of the 34,000 miles maintained by the state.
A comparison to all surrounding states shows that Missouri is impacted by its maintenance of lettered roads. Even Illinois, which has more than twice as many residents, manages less than half the miles of roadway.
But opposition to any transfer of lettered road maintenance to local governments is reflected in unbending comments by Randolph County Commissioner Wayne Wilcox. “We are definitely pushing back on taking over any lettered roads from the state,” said Wilcox. “We are not interested in taking over lettered roads. We’re not equipped to do that.”
A transportation task force that spent most of six months studying how to address Missouri’s transportation needs in 2017 recommended against moving responsibility of road upkeep to counties.
The maintenance of lettered roads is currently handled by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which spends $27 million on average annually on the routes that are not subsidized with any federal funding.
Local planners and elected officeholders were fierce in their opposition to being held responsible for the roads at several transportation task force meetings in 2017.
Former Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin told the committee at a gathering in Springfield that shifting upkeep of lettered roads to counties would endanger the jurisdictions. “This could bankrupt some of the counties, just this one thing,” said Cirtin. “Please, please do not let that happen.”
Randolph County Commissioner Wilcox echoed Cirtin’s concerns recently to Missourinet Moberley affiliate KWIX. “A lot of these small counties have no way in the world to take over these lettered roads,” Wilcox said.
In its final recommendations, the task force concluded that counties lacked equipment, expertise and financial resources to maintain the roads. It further said local jurisdictions would not be able to match the buying power the state has in procuring materials, which effectively would increase the cost to maintain the roadways.
Complicating the issue of maintaining roads in the state was the recent rejection by voters of a ballot measure that would have raised to state’s motor fuel tax by 10 cents over four years.
The Hancock Amendment requires voter approval before taxes or fees can be increased more than a certain annual limit, which now exceeds $102 million.
The tax increase would have raised roughly $400 million annually to maintain and improve roads and highways at the state and local level.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has calculated that an additional $825 million is needed every year to adequately fund the state’s roads.
Retiring State Representative Bill Reiboldt of Neosho, who was a member of the transportation task force and chaired the House Transportation Committee, is at a loss for what the next move would be for lawmakers to secure more funding for roads. “I don’t know,” said Reiboldt. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads, wondering. We’re going to do the best we can with the monies that we have.”
Reiboldt told Missourinet that the state would need to find an alternative to the motor fuel tax to finance road upkeep in the future. He said the eventual dominance of electric vehicles would make the fuel tax obsolete.