The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 5, 2014

Two proposals would give voters final say on sales tax boost for highway projects

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri transportation officials are laying out their case in the state Capitol for future highway funding, seeking a 1-cent sales tax increase to help cover an expected shortfall.

Without that, or some other funding increase, Missouri Department of Transportation Director Dave Nichols said, the department would not be able to fund bridge and road repairs.

“It is going to deteriorate unless we come up with something,” Nichols said. “We are not going to be able to afford what Missourians desire in their transportation system.”

In Southwest Missouri, that would mean no money to complete the Bella Vista bypass in McDonald County or a bypass around the west side of Joplin, officials said. Some other improvement projects, such as turn lanes and new intersections, would not happen, either.

On Tuesday, legislators took up a bill that would put the 1-cent sales tax before voters. A similar plan was proposed last year in the General Assembly, but it dead-ended in the final days of the session.

Separately, a group is considering a petition drive that would put the tax proposal on the ballot. The group is not yet gathering petition signatures, waiting to see if the Legislature will call the election.

Bill McKenna, treasurer of Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, said it would cost less and save time if the Legislature would act on the proposal. But he said his group is ready to resume working if transportation funding bogs down in the Legislature.

The group would need at least 170,000 signatures by May 4 to get the measure on the November ballot.

Gas tax drying up

The proposal in the Legislature aims to raise about $650 million annually for 10 years. Five percent would go to cities, 5 percent would go to counties, and the remainder would be given to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission’s funding formula.

The state sales tax currently totals 4.225 percent. Additional city and county sales taxes vary depending on the location. The proposed 1-cent sales tax for transportation would exempt necessary goods such as food and medicine.

Last month, Nichols spoke at a transportation conference put on by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He said that by 2017, funding to maintain — not improve or expand — current road conditions would fall below the $485 million needed annually.

Currently, 70 percent of the department’s funding for road projects comes from state and federal gas tax receipts. But with fuel efficiency on the rise, people are buying less gasoline and diesel fuel, and that revenue is projected to decline.

“Most people think that the state fuel tax is a percentage of the gas price, but it’s not,” said Dan Salisbury, assistant district engineer for MoDOT in Joplin. “While gas prices have increased tremendously, the fuel tax is the same as it was in 1992 (17 cents a gallon).

“In the meantime, the cost of asphalt and concrete has more than doubled.”

By 2017, Missouri is projected to have about $325 million for highway projects — $160 million less than needed to maintain current conditions, Nichols said. In light of this, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission announced that it would suspend its cost-share program with cities and counties and not place any new projects in its five-year construction pipeline.

“Given the financial forecast we’re presented with, we have no choice but to stop adding projects,” said Joe Carmichael, chairman of the commission.

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