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Post Dispatch Editorial: Missouri needs to raise the gas tax to pay for crumbling roads

The Missouri Transportation Development Council (MTD) supports any plan that moves the construction and maintenance of our state’s highway system forward. MTD believes that all options need to be on the table as the discussion of funding for Missouri’s roads and bridges continues.

From the St. Louis Post Dispatch

Missouri hasn’t devolved from the “Show-Me State” to the “Show-Me a Safe Way Out of This State” just yet, but it draws closer by the year to earning that sobriquet.

While the state’s roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, lawmakers continue to dither over raising the revenue necessary to pay for maintenance and repairs.

The state has only enough money to effectively maintain 8,000 of its 34,000 miles of state roads, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. The number of bridges deemed to be in critical condition — the lowest ranking before being shut down — has reached 641 and is expected to increase to 1,500 in the next decade. The current list of bridges, which would cost an estimated $820 million to repair or replace, includes 36 in St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties, as well as the city of St. Louis.

Help is not on the way. Missouri’s transportation construction budget is expected to dip to $325 million in 2017, so low that the state will lose access to federal matching funds that provide $4 for every $1 from the state.

An easy solution exists, of course, a solution that coarsely links costs to use, but too many lawmakers refuse to support it. Raise the gas tax.

At 17 cents a gallon, Missouri’s gas tax is the fifth-lowest in the United States and nearly half the national average of 30 cents, according to data gathered by the American Petroleum Institute. The state last increased it 20 years ago. Neighboring Oklahoma’s tax is also 17 cents a gallon, but funds there are supplemented by toll road revenue. Missouri lawmakers have also not seen fit to implement tolls as a way to raise needed revenue to take care of roads.

In what’s becoming a perennial exercise in futility, the Legislature will again consider a gas tax increase in its upcoming session. Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, Republican chairman of the House Transportation committee, has pre-filed a bill that would boost the gas tax by a measly 2 cents a gallon — a proposal that is grossly inadequate to address the state’s needs but better than expecting the roads and bridges to heal their own wounds.

The low gas tax, as we’ve stated before, is only part of what’s wrong with Missouri’s transportation system. MoDOT must maintain more road miles than all but three states, thanks largely to a 1952 initiative that caused Missouri to assume responsibility for thousands of miles of rural roads.

The “Takeover Program,” as it was called, deserves a fresh look and a fresh approach. Proposing to shift responsibility for any of those roads to cities and counties likely would cause a revolt, but it might be more palatable if the state enabled creation of regional transportation districts — like Virginia and Illinois — to enable leaders closest to those roads to prioritize maintenance and improvements as they see fit.

Toll roads, as unpopular as they might be, should be part of the debate in the Legislature, too, particularly for rural stretches of Interstate 70 and maybe I-44. Unlike the regressive sales tax proposal that deservedly flopped a year ago, tolls would be paid by the people — including commercial haulers — who actually use the roads. And, because interstates generally aren’t used for local trips, the tolls wouldn’t impose much burden on rural residents.

The debate over a two-cent increase in the gas tax should be easy in comparison to those proposals.

Even John Ashcroft, hardly known as a free spender, looks back fondly on the days when people viewed raising the gas tax periodically as sensible fiscal policy. At a recent gathering of former state governors, he said a boost in the tax during his term was vital to economic development. “I shudder to think where Missouri would be without that 10-cent-a-gallon increase,” he said. “We needed the roads. We need roads now.”



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