No clear alternative for road funding after Prop D rejected at polls

Construction continues Wednesday on Interstate 49 near Carthage. Missouri voters Tuesday rejected a proposed increase in the fuel tax to pay for road and bridge work in the state. While many officials, including some elected Tuesday, say highway work is a critical need in the state, none cited any alternatives as to how to pay for it.GLOBE | ROGER NOMER

After Proposition D came up short with Missouri voters this week, there's no clear Plan E in Missouri. 

On Tuesday, the measure, which would have increased the state's gas tax by 10 cents over a period of four years, was defeated with 54 percent of voters opposing it.

Proponents, which included state lawmakers from both major parties, Gov. Mike Parson, several local, state and even national groups such as the Missouri State Troopers Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Trucking Association, the Missouri Municipal League, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Missouri Association of Counties had said the state's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and that Prop D would have helped raise money for maintenance and upgrades.

With the tax hike defeated, there appears to be no consensus, or even indication, of where to go next for funding of road and bridge projects. 

"At some point, the roads are going to fall apart or we’re going to miss opportunities to complete projects that will help us compete economically," said state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, chairman of the House Budget Committee. "Or we’re going to have to change the way we fund our highways, (a way) that’s not immune to inflation. The expectation that the roads be maintained is going to have to change at some point if we don’t do something different."

While he recognized the issues facing the state's transportation system, Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said he, too, voted against Proposition D. He said he did so solely because he thought its language was misleading with regard to a portion of the money that was set to go to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. 

As for other ways to raise revenues for infrastructure, the only possibility Fitzpatrick said that seemed even somewhat feasible was a state sales tax on internet purchases. He said he didn't believe the "political will" exists in Jefferson City to create toll roads, and that turning control of lettered highways over to county governments may not even be legal.

"That’s currently a state obligation," he said. "If we were to tell the counties, ‘We’re going to give you these thousands of miles of roadways and no way to pay for it,' they may win a lawsuit on Hancock grounds.'"

The Hancock Amendment, as it is commonly referred to by lawmakers, requires voter approval for an increase in taxes greater than certain specified small amounts. The move would also be directly counter to Prop D, which was going to divert a portion of the tax revenues to city and county governments for their infrastructure needs.

As for simply allocating more of the state's budget to the Missouri Department of Transportation, Fitzpatrick said, it would require cuts to things such as education or social programs that would likely be unpopular.

In a statement emailed to the Globe by a spokesperson, Parson vowed to continue to explore ways to fund transportation projects but offered no specifics.

"Missouri voters have spoken on this issue," the governor's statement said. "I plan to continue to work with members of the Highway Commission, the General Assembly, and industry stakeholders to explore ways to meet our state's infrastructure needs moving forward. Missouri's future economic success is directly related to our ability to anticipate and meet the growing infrastructure demands of our state."

Travis Koestner, district engineer for MoDOT's Southwest District, said Wednesday that it's "business as usual" in the wake of Prop D's rejection and acknowledged that not getting the funds the measure would have raised will mean certain jobs either get pushed back or can't be completed.

"The dollars equate to projects," Koestner said, adding, "As we move forward, we have the target amount of money that should be coming in, or we project will be coming in, from the registrations, sales tax, gas tax. We appreciate the governor, lieutenant governor and the Legislature’s efforts to move this option forward, this is a direct result of the 21st Century Transportation Committee recommendations, so we appreciate that, but we also respect the vote."

In a statement released after the measure was defeated, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said "the people of Missouri have spoken, and we respect that."

"We will continue to do the best we can with what we have for as long as we can," McKenna's statement said. "Setting priorities among the many equally important transportation projects will be a tough job with limited resources, but we’ll continue to work closely with planning partners, local communities and customers to address Missouri’s most pressing needs.”

Many of Fitzpatrick's colleagues in the Legislature from Southwest Missouri supported Prop D and consider infrastructure funding an important issue, but so far none have proposed a way to proceed. 

"I believe we do have to have more money for (transportation) funding and I think the Legislature will have to look at ways to shift some money on that, and I do think the infrastructure is very important for the state," said Bob Bromley, a newly elected state representative. 

Bromley, R-Carl Junction, said as a soon-to-be freshman legislator, he did not yet know what method he would prefer to see used to provide more money for infrastructure.

Another newcomer to the state Legislature is Lane Roberts, a former Joplin police chief and director of the state's Department of Public Safety. He said on Wednesday that the rejection of Prop D "presents some real challenges" for lawmakers.

"The state patrol has some budgetary ties to transportation for obvious reasons," he said. "And probably of all the things we do in public safety, traffic is the most undervalued piece of that. The vast majority of fatalities on our state occur on roadways as opposed to other violent crimes. So when you have roads that aren’t efficient, it’s going to put some pressure on the patrol in maintaining safe roadways."

Roberts said safety and infrastructure will be among his "half-dozen highest priorities" as a lawmaker but didn't say specifically how he would like to see them funded.

"The idea of increasing taxes has always been difficult, and I’m not an advocate of that," he said. "I do want to take a look and see, is there money elsewhere? We may have to decide, what are we not going to fund in order to fund road repairs?" 

Gas tax results

Proposition D, Missouri's proposed gas tax increase, was rejected on Tuesday 54 percent to 46 percent. The total number of "no" votes was 1,197,453 to 1,026,707 "yes" votes.