Lawmakers, MoDOT prepare for road ahead in transportation funding
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Lawmakers, MoDOT prepare for road ahead in transportation funding

Date: October 29, 2014
By: Steven Anthony
State Capitol Bureau

After the defeat of a sales tax increase in August, the funding situation for Missouri roads is becoming more dire by the day as MoDOT warns by 2018, they will not be able to maintain the current road system.
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Wrap: Whether it is roads without painted lane markers on Highway 63, or backed up traffic at the Missouri River bridge on Interstate 64, Missourians and others who travel through the state can see the roads are in need of maintenance.

Missourians had the opportunity to vote to approve new funding for road repairs and improvements, but voters defeated an increase in the state sales and use tax that would've raised around 5.4 billion dollars for different transportation projects around the state.

With the rejection of the sales tax increase, MoDOT and lawmakers agree it's time to go back to the drawing board. 

MoDOT director Dave Nichols says one of the main reasons coming up with a new funding formula is so difficult is because of the amount of state-maintained roads Missouri has.

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Description: "We have over 34,000 miles of roads in Missouri. That compares to our surrounding states, for example, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa's state-maintained roads combined in those three states is a less mileage than just what MoDOT has."

The neighboring state with the next most state-maintained road mileage is Kentucky with nearly 28,000.

Nichols says the amount of roads MoDOT has to maintain creates a huge problem.

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Description: "We're the seventh largest highway system in the country and right now, we're about 41st towards the bottom in funding, so it's a challenge that we're dealing with."

Voters soundly defeated the constitutional amendment proposal in August by a 59 to 41 margin.

Senate Transportation Committee vice-chairman John Lamping said Missourians sent a clear message with their votes.

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Description: "The majority that said no was dramatic and I think that the number of people that said no, the percentage of them that said no, I think they'll be listened to because they gave the General Assembly a mandate: don't raise taxes to fund roads."

Lamping did not seek reelection this year, but the chairman of the Transportation Committee did.

Sen. Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City said his goal is to give Missourians many options to fund roads.

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Description: "Ever since I started this conversation, my whole goal was to give them some options to look at. This is one they obviously did not want to pursue."

Currently, MoDOT gets 50 percent of their state funding through a 17 cent per gallon fuel tax, 25 percent through sales taxes when a person buys a vehicle, and another 25 percent through registration fees on vehicles and driver's licenses.   

Nichols said Amendment 7 would've paid for an expansion of Interstate 70 across the state, but other projects were in the works as well. 

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Description: "The interesting thing was there were lots and lots of these local bridge replacement projects and one of the key areas that Amendment 7 was going to fund were safety improvements on minor roads."

So where do lawmakers and MoDOT go from here?

One place they could go is a proposal by Lamping to divert part of Missourians existing sales and use taxes.

Lamping introduced the proposal during the last legislative session, but it went no further than committee.

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Description: "And it would ask Missourians the question: do they want to permanently redirect one-eighth of their existing sales and use tax to Missouri's road fund?"

Lamping says had the measure been on the ballot, it would've passed.

However, Kehoe says there is a big problem with Lamping's proposal.

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Description: "The problem is it would take... That money would come out of GR [general revenue]. So anybody who is getting funded through GR right now whether that's education, or mental health, or corrections, or pick one of the hundreds of programs that are funded through that, they had indicated to me and others in the building that they would have a major problem with that plan."

Nichols agreed that another ballot measure isn't the answer.

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Description: "We don't believe that Missourians are interested in having another ballot initiative, so anything that's done is going to be done in and around anything that's done through the legislative process."

Whatever future proposal comes from the legislature, Nichols says it is critical something happens soon.

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Description: "We're going to do everything we can with the resources we have to keep our highway system in a state of good repair for as long as we can knowing that it's going to begin to deteriorate."

Kehoe agreed something needs to happen soon, but he also says the political will to get the job done must be present.

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Description: "I think the political will is always difficult on this issue because it's hard for people to understand why we need so much... why the dollars are so great to fix transportation."

St. Louis County Democratic Senator Scott Sifton did commend Republicans for pushing the sales tax increase last session.

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Description: "To have a Republican-dominated legislature with a veto-proof majority in both chambers bring forward a sales tax ballot question took a lot of political will. You know, maybe not wisdom, but it took a lot of will for that to happen. Republican legislatures generally aren't in the business of proposing tax increases and neither are most Democratic ones."

MoDOT says Missouri's transportation budget is rapidly shrinking due to the loss of temporary funds from sources like the federal stimulus package. 

They also point out Missouri's gas tax is one of the lowest in the nation at 17.3 cents per gallon, which is 11 cents below the national average.

After the defeat of the sales tax amendment, no specific proposals have been put forward by lawmakers or MoDOT despite MoDOT warning it will be just a few years before they cannot maintain the current road system at the current level of funding.

Reporting from the state Capitol, I'm Steven Anthony.