«RM75»«FC»COL13HWY.MDH - Death, Taxes and More Money for Missouri Roads
In a 1789 letter Benjamin Franklin observed that "nothing is certain but death and taxes." Had Franklin lived a bit farther west, he would have had to expand his list of certainties to include the need for more money for Missouri roads and highways.
By the time Franklin wrote that letter, the first road in Missouri, the Three Notch Trail that traced through the wilderness between Ste. Genevieve and Mine La Motte, was more than 50 years old. That road is identified by Missouri's Transportation Department as the state's first road. It was laid out by the French.
By the 1850s, a new law allowed construction of private, plank roads. The longest stretched from Ste. Genevieve to Pilot Knob. The 42-mile road cost $200,000 to build and was financed by tolls. A loaded wagon cost 25 cents; Ten cents for a man on horseback.
In 1913, the legislature created the a state highway department. Three years later, Congress passed a highway act making federal funds available to states. In 1917, Missouri's road fund was created. And in 1920, a $60 million bond issue was approved to "get Missouri out of the mud."
The first state fuel tax, two-cents per gallon, was approved by voters in 1924.
In 1951, the state gas tax was raised from two cents to three cents, and in 1952 a 10-year road building program was begun to make available a state- maintained highway within two miles of 95 percent of the state's population.
This program entailed the state takeover of the maintenance of almost 12,000 miles of roads previously maintained by Missouri counties.
In 1956, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower began the interstate highway system as a pay-as-you go project. Rex Whitten, chief engineer for the Missouri Highway Department, managed to let the first contract of the interstate system -- paving a section of I-44 in Laclede County. Whitten later became federal highway administrator and helped win passage for the Federal-Aid Highway Act that 'primed' the pump for highway construction.
Maintaining the new highway system -- and the county roads the state had taken over -- proved expensive. In 1961, Missouri's fuel tax increased to five cents, It increased to seven cents in 1972. In 1987, voters approved Prop A, increasing the tax another four cents.
In 1992, lawmakers passed the biggest highway plan in Missouri history -- the 15-year Highway Plan. It entailed another six cent gas tax increase, phased in over six years, with the promise of a four-lane highway to every town of 5,000 or more plus widening I-70 and I-44 to six lanes.
The plan was long on promises and short of funding to keep them. As the projects failed to materialize, criticism was sharp and angry. MoDot abandoned the 15-year plan in 1999, adopting a rolling five-year plan to try to move past the 15-year debacle.
In 2000, legislation was passed allowing MoDot to issue $2.25 billion in bonds for highway improvements. But by 2002, money was again tight. Lawmakers voted to extend the six-cent tax of 1992, but a ballot proposal, Proposition B, that would have added four cents to the fuel tax and a half-cent sales tax, was crushed by voters.
In August 2014, a three-fourth cent sales tax for roads was defeated by voters.
In 2015, MoDot announced road construction funding would drop to $325 million in 2017. Under this "325 System" they could maintain only 8,000 miles of road.
This year, MoDot has announced conditions have improved, but that $160 million in new funds each year is needed. SB 623 would provide half that -- by raising gas taxes by 1.5 cents and diesel taxes by 3.5 cents.
The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman has suggested cutting programs to increase General Revenue funds for transportation without a tax increase.
Another committee member criticized MoDot for spending $259,000 last year to fly highway commissioners to meetings.
Old Ben Franklin knew a penny saved is a penny earned. And he'd surely agree that Missouri's road fund shortage is as certain as death and taxes.
[After a career in journalism, Mark Hughes became a top, non-partisan policy analyst for Missouri government including the state Senate, state Treasurer's Office and the utility-regulating PSC. He has been an observer and analyst of state government since the administration of Gov. Kit Bond.]