INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — A bridge which carries over 11,000 vehicles daily in Jackson County via a major highway has been closed. Governor Jay Nixon and transportation leaders are calling for the legislature to act within the remaining days of session in order to cease the transportation funding crisis via a gas tax proposal from the Senate.
Nixon’s office says his call reiterated remarks made during his State of the State address in January, when the Governor said Missouri must meet the challenges posed both by aging roads and bridges and by a stagnant source of revenue for needed maintenance.
Gov. Nixon said that with only a little more than a week remaining in the regular session of the General Assembly, it was imperative to pass legislation in order to meet the immediate and pressing transportation needs faced by Missouri. Without action, the Governor said, by 2017, Missouri won’t have enough revenue to match federal highway dollars – making the situation even worse.
“A strong transportation infrastructure is vital to Missouri’s economy,” said Nixon. “But as we see here at this closed bridge today, many of our most important roadways are in significant need of repair – resulting in more traffic, less safety, and fewer jobs. I thank members of the legislature for their work so far on this issue – now they just need to finish the job.”
“In the middle of yesterday’s Commission meeting in Jefferson City, MoDOT Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger and Kansas City District Engineer Dan Niec interrupted us to report that a bridge over the Missouri River needed to be closed immediately,” said Stephen R. Miller, Missouri Department of Transportation Commission Chairman. “An in-progress inspection of the Missouri Route 291 northbound bridge over the Missouri River near Sugar Creek revealed serious deterioration of the steel truss in a critical location.”
Miller shared that the closure was to ensure public safety, while a repair could be determined. The closure comes at a considerable impact, said Miller, who said the 66-year-old bridge can be repaired and traffic will be rerouted to the more recently built southbound bridge. “That means daily pain for the drivers of nearly 25,000 vehicles who cross the two bridges each day,” Miller said.
This is the third bridge in the Kansas City area that has been unexpectedly closed in the past year. Miller said these closures can mean long and costly detours for motorists and for the efficient movement of goods. “But when an inspection reveals problems, they must be done. The only solution is act now – today – to take the first step to address our funding crisis,” Miller said.
Miller urged legislative action during the remaining days of session regarding Sen. Doug Libla’s bill, which Miller has been actively supporting, in order to increase transportation funding via a gas tax. The bill stalled in the Senate.
“The good news is that President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Peters, and Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, have added their leadership to the effort,” said Miller. “But even with this courageous leadership, procedural rules allow just one or two senators to keep the measure from coming to a vote.”
Miller encouraged supporters to contact their elected officials to voice their support, in step with Nixon’s call for a fix to be delivered to his desk.
“Ask those legislators who are preventing a vote for what principle are they fighting,” Miller said. “It is certainly not for the best interest of the majority of Missourians who want safe bridges and economic activity. How do they explain what they are doing to those thousands of motorists who today will be caught in the traffic tie-up on Route 291 – burning up hard-earned money on fuel as they idle and grind slowly along the single lane of traffic, late for jobs, appointments, picking up kids – or worse.”
Missouri’s tax on motor fuels has not increased in almost 20 years, and is the fifth-lowest in the nation. Pending legislation sponsored by Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, would increase the tax on motor fuels by 1.5 cents per gallon to 18.8 cents per gallon, and would raise the tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents per gallon to 20.8 cents per gallon, with the increases to go into effect Jan. 1, 2016. Only hours after Nixon’s statements about the bridge closure, the senate began debating Libla’s gas tax, with Senators Ed Emery and Rob Schaaf, both Republicans as well, threatening to filibuster the plan.
“Traditionally in Missouri, we’ve paid for fixing our roads and bridges through user fees like the gas tax, because it ensures that the burden is borne fairly by those who cause the greatest wear and tear, including trucks and travelers who use our roads from out of state,” Nixon said. “But that source of revenue has remained stagnant, and even declined.
“While we must continue working on solutions to meet our long-term challenges, this bill is a sensible approach that will help us meet our immediate needs and protect those who travel on our roads and bridges,” the Governor said. “I want encourage legislators to get it to my desk quickly to help prevent more bridge and road closures like this one.”
The bridge where Nixon was at today carries Mo. Hwy. 291 across the Missouri River. The northbound bridge was closed by MoDOT on May 6 after significant deterioration was found during a routine inspection. Northbound traffic has been routed onto the southbound bridge, with one lane open in each direction. The bridge that is now closed for repairs was built in 1949.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.