Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon began and closed his recent state of the state speech by invoking some of the principles he was taught in the Boy Scouts. One of those principles includes an obligation to leave things better than we’ve found them.
In an interview with The Missourian on Wednesday, he applied that principle to the state’s transportation infrastructure needs saying he was committed to finding a funding solution that would address one of the state’s most critical issues.
He said he was serious about leaving Missouri’s roads and bridges in better shape than he found them.
He also said time was running out for the state, noting that if the state didn’t come up with additional revenue by 2017 it won’t even have enough revenue to match federal highway dollars.
In other words, if we don’t act soon we will find ourselves in an even bigger pothole than we have today.
Nixon isn’t bluffing on sounding the alarm for a new transportation investment. The need is real and growing. Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the nation but ranks 46th in how much we invest to maintain it. We’ve neglected the issue for too long. The day of reckoning is upon us.
To be sure, Missouri isn’t the only state with a transportation funding deficit. Many states face the same problem. Part of the problem here as well as nationwide is the revenue generated from fuel taxes continues to decrease as people drive less and with more fuel-efficient vehicles. Our state’s gas tax of 17 percent a gallon has remained the same since 1996 — almost 20 years.
Inflation has eroded the purchasing power of those taxes by more than 50 percent. Adjusted for inflation, that 17 cents buys about 8 cents of concrete today and decreases each year.
The equation isn’t complicated. There is less money available to fund critical road and bridge projects which generally cost more than they did 20 years ago.
Earlier this month the Missouri Department of Transportation released a report outlining its funding priorities for 2017 based on an annual projected funding level of $325 million. It’s not enough money to keep up with the cost of maintaining the state’s 34,000 miles of roads and 10,400 bridges.
MoDOT’s plan is to use the revenue it has to focus on taking care of the state’s primary roads which connect cities across the state. The primary roads account for about 8,000 miles of the state’s total.
While the state would provide limited maintenance on the remaining 26,000 miles of roadways, the burden of keeping those up would shift to counties and cities.
MoDOT has warned this day would come. You have to live within your means which sometimes means making tough choices. MoDOT’s proposal would result in more deteriorating roads and bridges and heightened safety concerns.
Which is why Nixon is pushing for two unpopular funding solutions — a toll road for Interstate 70 and raising the state’s fuel tax which is the fifth-lowest in the nation.
Nixon said these two options are more consistent with how Missouri has traditionally paid for roads and bridges which is through user fees. Unlike the three-quarters percent sales hike proposal that voters rejected last year to boost transportation funding, these two solutions place the burden on those who actually use the roads.
Nixon knows it won’t be easy to convince the legislature or the voters to support toll roads or a gas tax hike. There is a healthy dose of skepticism toward both.
But, as Nixon correctly points out, what are the alternatives? The additional revenue has to come from somewhere. Nixon is betting that Missourians will respond favorably if they are educated on the need and the extent of the problem.
That will take a herculean effort. Nixon says he’s up to the challenge. He is willing to take the lead on transportation and somehow leave the state’s roads and bridges in better shape than when he came into office. If he were successful in this effort, it would be perhaps his greatest accomplishment. It would define his legacy.
He also understands that his time is running out.