The Missouri Department of Transportation is working hard to move our state ahead, rebuilding, expanding and maintaining our public transportation system, but there is a big obstacle in the road to success:
Money — or rather, the lack of it.
MoDOT is cutting and delaying road and bridge projects across the state in response to the reduction of funds available for the projects. During the coronavirus pandemic, states have seen declining tax revenues because of the associated economic downturn. With less travel and traffic, fuel tax revenues have declined.
This boulder falls in a road that was already rough because, according to MoDOT, our state has the seventh-largest state highway system in the nation — that’s a good thing — but has the lowest fuel tax rate in the nation at 17 cents per gallon. Yet voters have refused every attempt to adjust the fuel tax for more than 20 years. Because of inflation, the value of that gas tax funding MoDOT has been frozen in time since 1996, effectively dropping in value from 17 cents to 7 cents per gallon while the cost of materials and labor have continued to rise.
The coronavirus pandemic and related downturn have shifted the situation from difficult to dire.
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission had approved almost $48 million in funding for 19 projects in January. Now, those projects are on hold, and lawmakers have decreased that budget to $25 million. Gov. Mike Parson cut another $6.4 million when he announced more than $200 million in cuts to programs statewide.
We have praised MoDOT before for finding innovative solutions to move projects ahead despite revenue shortfalls. The Legislature and governor have tried to find ways to help, including drawing on the general fund and using bonding when federal matching funds are available. But creative solutions only get us so far.
This crisis shows that hot-patch solutions don’t hold up over time. Missouri has to address its ongoing reluctance to pay for the long-deferred work and to clear the backlog of repairs to our roads and bridges.
The Legislature needs to increase the fuel tax within the limits set by the Hancock Amendment. Though it may be a tough sell, lawmakers also need to put a transportation revenue tax proposal before the voters. Again.
It is a matter of paying the bill for one of the state government’s primary responsibilities. At the very least, our fuel tax should be increased to the average of fuel tax rates of the surrounding states. Missouri’s revenue per mile is $50,184, while the national average is $225,794. It is ridiculous that we continue to operate one of the largest highway systems without fully funding maintenance and repairs.
It is time to drag that boulder out of the road.