JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In the next weeks, Sen. Bill Eigel will present a bill he hope will help solve one of the state’s perennial problems: transportation infrastructure funding. Eigel’s bill, which is not yet officially filed, would seek to open up general revenue to pay for transportation needs and provide what he estimates to be roughly $2 billion for the state’s roads and bridges.
“We have over $9 billion in general revenue coming into the state each year; this is not a money problem, this is a problem of prioritizing it,” Eigel said on Sunday’s episode of This Week in Missouri Politics. “We’re going to spend more money at the state level in the state of Missouri than we ever have before. Given that’s the largest budget we’ve ever had, we can take a small portion of that and dedicate it to our roadway systems.”
Ideally, the freshman senator wants to use those funds to improve the state’s roads and bridges, as well as expand Interstate 70 to eight lanes “from Wentzville to Kansas City.” He has already had discussions with Sen. Dave Schatz, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Patrick McKenna, the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
However, not everyone is on board with the idea of taking money from general revenue (GR) to pay for state transportation.
Sen. Doug Libla has worked on the transportation funding issue for years in the legislature. Like Eigel, he recognizes the problems with the current system. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded Missouri’s roads and bridges with C and C- grades, respectively, in their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, and it also found the state had 339 functionally obsolete bridges. McKenna earlier this month said MoDOT was “treading water” in regards to its financial situation.
But taking money from GR is not the correct way forward, according to Libla.
“If we can find some general revenue money from time to time, build a bridge with it, build a bypass with it, or do some kind of economic development thing, that’s great,” he said. “But general revenue for 93 years has never been used for a long-term highway funding plan.”
Libla says problems with taking money from a GR are threefold. First, money in GR is appropriated, meaning year to year funding for transportation would compete with the state’s other pressing needs like education, social services, and health care. Libla says lawmakers can then politicize the issue of transportation funding.
Second, it would have a major impact on asking for funding matches from the federal government. Appropriating those funds would occur year-to-year, but applying for federal grants for certain projects can take months or even years and is more appropriate to long-term funding for the construction of new roads and bridges.
Third, it could actually mean a hidden cost to Missouri consumers because it takes general tax revenue, instead of a dedicated tax that affects all people travelling on Missouri’s roadways, which is not limited to Missourians. Libla says about half of the money raised through the current consumption tax comes from drivers who do not live in the state of Missouri because of the current fuel use tax system.
“It’s a truly Republican, conservative move, because it’s a consumption tax,” Libla said.
Currently, Missouri only has a 17 cents per gallon tax on its gasoline, well below the national average of 31 cents per gallon. That rate hasn’t changed since 1996 after former Gov. John Ashcroft signed a bill to raise the rate two cents every other year in 1992.
“We’re 17 years into the 21st century and we still haven’t adjusted that rate,” Libla said.
Only about 12 cents of that 17 goes to the state government, the rest goes to county and city governments. Libla believes MoDOT has done everything a responsible business would do to lower costs, such as cut over 1200 positions, close some regional headquarters, and work on new solutions to solve problems with fewer resources, like more directly managing their fleet of snowplows to have them stationed in proper areas when a storm hits.
Yet, the department continues to ask for more funds to maintain the state’s infrastructure.
For Eigel, that simply requires more fiscal responsibility for the General Assembly, not necessarily a tax hike. Voters defeated a ballot measure in 2014 that would have raised the state sales tax to pay for infrastructure improvements like roads and bridges.
“They want us to do a better job with the money they already send us,” Eigel said on This Week in Missouri Politics. “That’s what this is going to do. We’ll have a world-class I-70 across our state, and we’re going to do it without toll roads and without new taxes.”