By Rep. Bryan Spencer
There is no silver bullet to fixing Missouri’s transportation funding crisis. Believe me, we in the General Assembly have been searching for one.
There is also no shortage of ideas from transportation bureaucrats and newspaper editorial boards; including the use of private investment to build new roads and then forcing state government to tax Missourians (in the form of toll roads) to pay them back.
Advocates for tolling I-70 (and other roads) through the establishment of a public-private partnership (PPP) would have us believe tolling is the only way to solve our funding woes. This is a dangerous slippery slope that, in other states, has led to severe mismanagement, foreign ownership of roads, less accountability, fewer taxpayer protections, decreased economic opportunities, and even economic ruin when PPPs have failed and left taxpayers on the hook for billions in debt.
Missouri small businesses, especially manufacturers, are at an increased risk. Tolling I-70 in particular would be an undue burden on – and discriminatory towards – Missouri families and small business owners within the I-70 corridor. Many estimates suggest toll roads will result in thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars in additional costs for many of our family-owned small businesses, costing jobs and opportunities for Missourians.
Most transportation advocates and community leaders recognize that a serious discussion on transportation funding must be reignited in the coming months. But many of us will remain respectfully opposed to toll roads and PPPs, and we stand on the side of our constituents who are largely against tolling. Tolls are not the appropriate solution.
Missourians have a paid a motor fuel tax since 1924 for road construction and maintenance. New tolls simply tax users twice for using the same roads. Unfairly double taxing our citizens by placing tolls on I-70, especially without a public vote, is a non-starter for many of us serving in the General Assembly.
Our interstates serve as the main arteries connecting the vital areas of our state, enabling job growth and the flow of commerce. Our roads allow our manufacturers to efficiently move products to market, and Missouri farmers to get food to our tables. They enable freedom for our working families to live where they choose, and commute to their place of employment. Missouri simply cannot succeed in building a 21st century economy without utilizing a safe and reliable transportation network, but a real funding solution is needed.
At one time Missouri led the nation in constructing our modern highways as the first state to build miles of interstate following the inception of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 through the Federal Aid Highway Act signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1992, Republican Governor John Ashcroft built a coalition to pass an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax which has now been unchanged for 21 years. Missourians will follow leaders who present a real plan to address critical issues.
But first, voters must be convinced to adopt a new transportation vision. Voters will act when transportation advocates begin to make a clear and consistent case for statewide transportation investment. Voters will act when our state and local leaders step forward to maximize public awareness to support critical transportation initiatives.
Our transportation funding crisis deserves an honest discussion. Toll roads are the worst possible solution and should be rejected outright. Public opposition is already gaining momentum, so let’s use this misguided attempt as a catalyst for a real discussion among citizens and transportation stakeholders on the appropriate path forward.
Rep. Bryan Spencer represents District 63 in the Missouri House of Representatives.