Missouri transportation officials warned last week of a potential rise in traffic fatalities and bridge closures, after voters defeated a sales tax hike that would have funded hundreds of highway and transportation projects across the state.
The three-quarters cent sales tax had been touted as a way to avoid an impending shortfall between Missouri’s needed road-and-bridge repairs and what it can afford to spend. The tax would have raised at least $540 million annually for 10 years.
Missouri has no alternative funding plan.
But a key lawmaker said that he hopes to start a discussion next year about other ways to raise money for the Missouri Department of Transportation. Those could include higher vehicle registration fees, new fees for electric or hybrid vehicles, indexing the fuel tax to inflation or turning to private investors to build major road or bridge projects, said Rep. Dave Hinson, a Republican from St. Clair who sponsored the rejected sales tax proposal.
“We have to come up with an alternative way to raise revenues for MoDOT, because the funding issue is going to continue to get worse,” Hinson said.
The mood was subdued at a meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. It approved an annual update to its rolling five-year spending plan that included just 30 new projects instead of the hundreds that have been typical in recent years.
Although commissioners didn’t officially campaign for the sales tax hike, they had hoped it would pass.
“It is a disappointing, sad day, but we’re moving forward and we’re going to keep doing our business,” said MoDOT Director Dave Nichols.
As recently as a few years ago, the department was spending $1.3 billion annually on roads and bridges due to a surge of bond-induced revenues. But road-and-bridge contracts are budgeted at $720 million this year and are projected to fall to $325 million by 2017 and then remain at that level.
Nichols said the agency needs to spend at least $485 million annually just to keep roads and bridges in good repair, and that doesn’t account for any major new projects.
Without additional revenues, MoDOT won’t be able to improve the shoulders on thousands of miles of narrow two-lane roads, potentially leading to a rise in traffic fatalities that had been declining in recent years, said transportation officials. Fatalities on Missouri’s roads already are up 3 percent so far this year compared with last year.
Because of the funding gap, transportation officials said the department may also be forced close some of the state’s 814 worst bridges, resulting in inconveniently long detours for drivers.
It may take time before voters can see the need for more transportation funding, said Commission Chairman Stephen Miller.
“The public will, at some point and time, have to embrace some form of new funding,” Miller said. “When that is, what that funding is, we don’t know.”
The proposed sales tax was defeated in a 59-41 percent vote. It fared best in parts of rural northern Missouri but was rejected by more than two-thirds of the voters in St. Louis city and county and also lost in many other rural areas. It failed in Texas County. Some opponents expressed a general dislike of taxes, while others raised concerns that the type of tax wouldn’t affect the heaviest highway users, such as trucking companies.
Supporters opted to place a sales tax on the ballot partly because it had fared better than fuel taxes and tolls in opinion polls.
“The clear and resounding signal we got is that we need to look for some other alternatives in terms of long-term financing,” said transportation commission member Joe Carmichael. “I don’t think the people voted against transportation, I think they voted against the way we were going to fund this.”