JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Transportation says 641 bridges in the state are in critical condition as the beleaguered agency continues to appeal to lawmakers and the general public for an infusion of funds.
In a statement, MoDOT officials said the latest round of bridge inspections lists 50 more bridges on the list than one year ago, and with dwindling financial resources, they expect the number to grow.
“When we completed the Safe & Sound Bridge Improvement Program in 2012, we stemmed the tide for a while,” said state bridge engineer Dennis Heckman. “But we knew that the curve would start going up again. Safe & Sound made a dent, however it did not repair or replace all of the state’s bad bridges. Now with a shrinking construction budget, the number of bad bridges is on the rise again.”
MoDOT saw significant cuts to its budget over the last decade and a massive downsizing of its department, with nearly one-third of its employees eliminated and tens of millions in property and equipment sold off, officials have been desperately pleading for more funds to care for Missouri’s road system, which is one of the largest in the nation.
Last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax increase set to pump billions into MoDOT. Earlier this spring, state lawmakers debated but ultimately failed to advance a gas tax increase that also would have sent funds directly to state roads. Since then, several lawmakers, including state senator Doug Libla, who championed last year’s gas tax proposal, continue to promise proposals next year seeking new funds for the agency.
“Another report out today from MoDOT regarding the critical condition of our bridges should be alarming to all citizens of Missouri,” Libla said. “We absolutely need to address a long term transportation plan and funding mechanism to keep our bridges and highways upgraded to meet the traveling public’s safety and expectations. We cannot afford to procrastinate any longer.”
In recent weeks, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association introduced their proposal to increase Missouri’s tobacco tax to directly fund state road projects through MoDOT. State officials at the agency narrowly dodged a bullet for the coming fiscal year when it collected just enough through licensing fees to meet standards for matching dollars from the federal government, a critical tipping point they expect to hit within the next few years if funding levels continue to shrink.
Executive Director for the Petroleum Marketers, Ron Leone, said he felt more and more that there was a consensus on the MoDOT needing an infusion of cash. Where that money comes from continues to trip-up those debates.
“Everyone understands the need I think, but there’s no consensus on where to get those funds,” Leone said. “Our goal, with what we did, was to get the discussion going, an adult discussion, not only regarding a tax increase, but where the funds generated should go. We think putting them into roads is probably the best option out there, because most people agree that it’s a fundamental role of government and it needs to be better funded.”
The decrease in MoDOT’s budget is, at least in part, inherent to its funding mechanism. The majority of their annual funds come from the state’s gas tax, which has remained frozen for nearly two decades at 17 cents per gallon, a number that has less and less buying power as construction materials like asphalt and concrete increase in cost roughly 200 percent over the same time span. Soaring costs, a deeply anti-tax increase legislature and increasingly fuel-efficient cars and fuel-conscious consumers have sent MoDOT’s funding into a virtual free fall.
“To get ahead of the game, we should be replacing more than 100 bridges per year,” Heckman said. “Instead, our funding levels are only allowing us to replace about 30. In 10 years, we’ll have about 1,500 bridges on the critical condition list.”