Missouri lawmakers are once again engaged in deliberations on how to find more revenue for our state’s chronically underfunded transportation system.
Because that exercise involves raising taxes or fees, or a combination of the two, it will undoubtedly be an uphill slog. Yet, the need remains acute.
Missouri ranks 48th nationally in revenue per mile, primarily because the state’s large system — the nation’s seventh largest with 33,832 miles of highways — is funded with one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country at 17 cents per gallon.
Yet advocates of investing more in our state’s transportation system, folks like Gov. Mike Parson, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and Franklin County Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, are undeterred.
These fiscally conservative Republicans understand that the state’s economic fortunes are directly tied to infrastructure, and they aren’t letting politics or the uncomfortable issue of raising taxes get in the way of what they know is in the best interest of the state.
They are willing to expend political capital on an unpopular issue because it is the right and necessary thing to do.
But there is another reason why it makes sense now to go for more revenue for transportation infrastructure. The Missouri Department of Transportation has demonstrated it can be good stewards of taxpayers’ money.
In a tougher than usual year, MoDOT delivered one of its strongest construction programs ever in 2020 despite taking a significant revenue hit in the state’s motor vehicle tax, due to people driving less in the pandemic.
The department stayed on course, completing more than 541 projects and issuing over a $100 million more in payments to contractors compared to 2019. They did so by taking aggressive cost-cutting measures, which included 1,000 employees taking pay cuts.
MoDOT’s senior management team also took pay cuts for three months — 10 percent for Director Patrick McKenna and the deputy director, and a 5 percent cut for the rest of the department’s 33 senior managers.
In a recent interview with this newspaper, McKenna pointed out that “despite all of the challenges of the past year, we were able to record the highest level of construction output in years.”
Recent reports suggested our state is spending its transportation dollars wisely. They ranked Missouri as one of the best states in the country for overall highway cost-effectiveness.
One report, from the Reason Foundation, ranked Missouri second in the nation in overall road cost-effectiveness despite giving our state poor marks in safety and performance categories.
In safety and performance categories, Reason ranked Missouri 31st in overall fatality rate, 33rd in structurally deficient bridges, 20th in traffic congestion, 16th in urban interstate pavement condition, and 10th in rural interstate pavement condition.
On spending, Missouri ranks first in total spending per mile and first in capital and bridge costs per mile, according to Reason.
In other words, Missouri is getting a good bang for its buck, we just need more bucks if we are going to alleviate the safety issues plaguing our state’s highways and bridges.
In his four years as director, McKenna has shored up a department many considered a leaky ship. Under his leadership, MoDOT is delivering vital transportation projects in a cost-effective manner.
The department is more responsive and agile than it ever has been.
We’re confident it can do even more if given the resources.