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Rocheport Bridge, bonding ‘just beginning’ of finding transportation funding solutions

  

ROCHEPORT, Mo. — Missourians are getting what they pay for when it comes to transportation infrastructure, according to Director of Transportation Patrick McKenna. And the state has about $8 billion to $10 billion in unfunded needs. 

A plan passed out of the legislature this year addressed “a small percentage” of the unfunded needs, officials said. Overall, state officials are still looking for a long term solution for Missouri’s transportation infrastructure

“This [plan] is just the beginning,” Gov. Mike Parson told reporters Wednesday. “We are going to have to keep going back to the legislature, we are going to have to go back to the people maybe at some point.”

“There is no doubt … this isn’t a long term solution for transportation needs in Missouri,” McKenna told The Missouri Times. “It is really important, but you are looking at a small percentage overall of the unfunded need.”

The plan both state officials are referring to include replacing the Rocheport Bridge and investing more than $350 million — through bonding and a cost-share program — in statewide infrastructure. 

In July, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) was awarded an $81.2 million Infrastructure For Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant from the federal government to replace the I-70 Missouri River Bridge in Rocheport. The overall project is expected to cost $255.8 million. 

The grant triggered a controversial $301 million bond for Missouri’sbridges. 

The bonding, approved by the General Assembly this year, will be repaid out of the general revenue over a seven-year period. It’s predicted to cost about $46 million per year and included an additional $50 million allocated from the general revenue to “jump-start” the projects. 

About 215 bridges across the state will either be repaired or replaced with the bonding funds. Proponents of the plan noted this will free up $301 million already committed to these bridge projects in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program to enable other high-priority transportation needs across the state. 

Additionally, the legislature approved a Transportation Cost-Share Program. The state is set to put $50 million toward local projects which satisfy a “transportation need” and is expected to cost more than $200,000. The program will match up to 50 percent of the construction contract costs of selected projects. 

“I think what’s really important for the Rocheport Bridge project is what that does for the rest of the state,” Parson said. “What we’ve done at the federal level — what Sen. [Roy] Blunt was able to obtain with the — how much that frees us up to do a lot more projects all across the state. I think in probably the next year, you’ll see major projects across the state of Missouri because of what we got done here today.”

“I think we saw some really innovative approaches from the governor and the legislature, even after defeat at the polls to make some progress,” McKenna said. “And it is really important progress.” 

But the state still has a ways to go in addressing the overall transportation infrastructure needs of the state.

“This is the beginning. It, by far, is not the solution to everything,” Parson said. 

Missouri has one of the largest transportation infrastructure systems in the nation — while spending per mile ranks at the bottom. In fact, the Show-Me State ranks 49th on dollars per mile spent.

The state has between $8 billion and $10 billion of unfunded transportation infrastructure needs statewide, McKenna noted. The state’s fuel tax, which partially funds the system, has not kept up inflation, he added. 

Only Alaska has a lower fuel tax than Missouri. 

When the Sinking Creek Bridge was built in the 1920s, it cost $37,000. The replacement bridge — which is a conservative, no-frills plan, according to McKenna — cost $2.8 million, or around 75 times the original bridge. He pointed out the fuel tax was one cent when the bridge was built while it is 17 cents today.

“We are getting the conditions we are paying for. And we are actually getting a pretty good value,” McKenna said.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe told supporters at his campaign kickoff that a long-term solution is needed. 

But finding a long term solution is no easy task.

Increasing the fuel tax by 10 cents failed at the ballot in 2018 — and several times before that.

The fuel tax increase was actually one of the recommendations by the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force. The group, led by then-Rep. Kevin Corlew outlined a number of legislative remedies they said would address issues and concerns about the highway system and funding for it.

Lawmakers also filed legislation again this year to increase the fuel tax. In a 2018 tax cut bill, then-Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr proposed increasing vehicle user fees, which were put in statute in 1984, in line with inflation. The provision was ultimately stripped from the measure. 

“We just have to continue to make that case to the citizens, that this investment is actually in their own assets — the roads and bridges they use every day,” McKenna said.