Cost-effective or cheap? Missouri highways lauded and lamented as new gas tax proposed

Gregory J. Holman
Gannett
Traffic flows across the 60-year-old Mississippi River Bridge on Interstate 70 near Rocheport on Nov. 30, 2020. The bridge is being replaced at a cost of more than $200 million, just one of Missouri's many infrastructure needs. Don Shrubshell

When Missouri lawmakers go into session next month, they may decide to send voters a gas tax proposal in the near future. The hike would help pay for highways, roads and bridges — whether taxpayers go along with it could have long-lasting consequences.

Right now, Missouri's gas tax is 17 cents per gallon. Only oil-rich Alaska's is lower. And while Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the U.S., it has the lowest revenue per mile of any of its neighboring heartland states.

Much of Missouri's infrastructure needs repair or replacement, say experts and politicians — including conservatives and libertarians. Last year, Gov. Mike Parson and lawmakers agreed on a "Focus on Bridges" program, sending $50 million in state general revenue to fix 45 bridges by the end of this year in hopes of addressing what Parson called a "critical" need.

Amid these realities, Senate President David Schatz, a Republican representing Franklin and West St. Louis County, filed two proposals Thursday. Both would increase Missouri's gas tax by 2 cents per year over a 5-year period. If voters agree with the plan, the end rate — 27 cents per gallon — would bring Missouri roughly in line with gas taxes in Tennessee and Kentucky.

In that scenario, a Missouri gallon of gas would still cost much less than in high-fuel-tax states like Illinois and Pennsylvania.

But Schatz's plan could be a difficult sell at the statehouse. The Senate leader called it a "tough" but "necessary" move on Friday, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Other conservative politicians agree.

In a Friday interview, Sen. Lincoln Hough, a Republican from Springfield, cited Interstates 70 and 44 as key routes that need repair. He also lauded Springfield and Joplin's transport companies for their role in the state and national economies. But he said "as a guy in my spot," he wasn't ready to support a gas tax increase outright, but wanted to "support a balanced approach" that would support long-term savings.

Doug Libla, a Republican from Poplar Bluff representing eight southeastern counties, told the News-Leader last week that politicians are reluctant to raise the Missouri gas tax, even though there is a long list of infrastructure problems.

"There's so much misinformation out there on road funding and stuff, and it just worries me to death," Libla said, as he highlighted a number of sore spots in Missouri's transport network.

He pointed to I-70's Missouri River bridge near Rocheport. Built in 1960, it's in poor condition and is currently being replaced to the tune of $240 million, using $81.2 million in federal money and relying on a state bonding program. Libla also recalled a downtown Kansas City bridge that once had to be closed, inconveniencing 26,000 drivers per day. A third bridge connecting Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky over the Mississippi River is "86 or 87 years old" and has "a ton of accidents," Libla said.

"We've got our money's worth out of that bridge," Libla said. "The deal is, it's affecting us big time. Now they're closing the bridge for 30 days. You know, we're just wasting money left and right on detours, truck traffic and so on and so forth."

Libla also thinks 46 miles of U.S. 63 between Rolla and Jefferson City are "super-dangerous" and that I-270 traffic in suburban St. Louis is heavily congested, or typically would be without a pandemic effect.

Despite these issues and many others, when it comes to supporting a gas tax, Libla said lawmakers remember a failed 2018 initiative that doesn't inspire them to confidence today. That ballot initiative would have raised fuel taxes to support both infrastructure and the Missouri State Highway Patrol — but it "went down miserably" with voters, in Libla's words, defeated 53.6 to 46.4 percent.

"I don't think there's enough courage anymore," Libla said Tuesday. He added, "They always say, well, the voters, they have decided not to raise the motor fuel user tax."

(Speaker of the Missouri House Elijah Haahr, a Republican from Springfield whose term ends soon, did not respond to a message left by the News-Leader on Thursday seeking comment on transportation matters.)

A longtime proponent of gradually increasing gas taxes because he believes in "pay-as-you-go," Libla likes to call them a form of user fee.

But historically, the users don't want to pay more fees: Six years ago, Missouri voters also decisively said no to a sales tax proposal that would have funded 800 projects through the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The last gas tax increase is now literally as old as Missouri's youngest millennials: It happened 24 years ago, due to a 1992 law passed with bipartisan support and signed by then-Gov. John Ashcroft. Since that 1996 increase, inflation has gone up 66 percent.

Meanwhile, Missouri's transportation budget counts up to about $2.5 billion, though it's had millions in funding cuts this year due to the pandemic's effect on state coffers. But every year, MoDOT officials and others bemoan a mountain of unfunded priorities: Bridges that need replacing, highways that need resurfacing, interchanges that need upgrading, and much more.

'These aren't wants'

Those priorities were the subject of a new report issued on Thursday, even as Senate President Schatz filed his tax-increase proposals.

TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based research group sponsored by insurance companies, highway construction contractors and other entities, reported a litany of costs that drivers, truckers and the taxpayers are already eating while Missouri's transportation system faces an $825 million annual shortfall.

Safety costs, vehicle costs and issues including lost opportunity due to traffic congestion are an $8 billion annual burden for Missouri, TRIP said. Around the state, 52 percent of major roads and highways are in poor or mediocre condition. Springfield and the Columbia-Jefferson City area are considered the best two metros for road quality, but only roughly 40 percent of their roads fall into the "good" category.

Roughshod roads, traffic congestion and safety costs are already pulling money from the pockets of ordinary Missourians, TRIP said, without even considering the direct effects of taxes on family pocketbooks.

Driving on rough roads costs the average Missouri driver $762 each year in additional vehicle operating costs like worn-out tires or brakes.

Congestion is about as expensive. Columbia-Jefferson City drivers lose 23 hours each per year on average, or $461 per driver, just due to traffic congestion. In Springfield, the tally is 34 hours lost, costing $695 per driver. In Kansas City and St. Louis, drivers spend more than an entire standard workweek in congestion every year, and the dollar cost is even higher.

Linked to traffic fatalities and all the negatives associated with them, the safety costs in the state's four metros range from $332 per driver in Kansas City to $406 in Springfield.

"These aren't wants, these are needs," Ed Hassinger, MoDOT's deputy director and chief engineer told reporters Thursday, as TRIP unveiled its data. "We have some of the most connected parts of the country as it relates to roads, rails and rivers, but if we don't make the investment to do those things and make those things work and bring economic activity to this state, we've really lost an opportunity."

Hassinger also said that gas taxes have to be viewed in context because cars are getting better mileage: Gas tax money only goes so far when consumers buy less gas. TRIP reported that U.S. passenger vehicles became more than 20 percent more efficient over the past 10 years. Fuel efficiency is expected to increase by more than half between 2020 and 2040.

"What we'll be doing is we'll be managing the decline of the system to the best ability we can, if we don't do something on the revenue front," Hassinger said.

Jakob Puckett, an analyst with the conservative Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, told the News-Leader recently that one day it may be possible to enact a user fee for actual road usage by vehicles. It would involve using advanced technology like anonymized GPS tracking. "We're still a long way from that," he said, but it's an idea to consider among other ones, including exploring tolling. The idea is that matching revenue to road use keeps government spending connected to efficiency, instead of becoming too lavish or too miserly.

'Missouri does a really good job' at not spending excessively

According to another report released recently, the efficiency of Missouri's department of transportation is almost unmatched.

Baruch Feigenbaum is the lead author of a new ranking of U.S. states according to cost-effectiveness and "highway performance," published by a libertarian think tank, the Reason Foundation.

"Missouri is running a very cost-effective system," he told the News-Leader recently on a call from his office in Atlanta. "And that's why they ranked number two."

Feigenbaum also said, "Missouri does a really good job in our report because of overall low cost and overall good pavement quality. But that doesn't mean there might not be other needs in the system and that doesn't mean that there's not a case for Missouri to tax for other needs, especially because the system they're running right now is so efficient."

Hough, the Springfield-area state senator, told the News-Leader on Friday that he thinks it's "completely accurate" to call MoDOT's stewardship of taxpayer money "incredibly efficient."

He and Poplar Bluff's Libla both noted that in recent years, the department underwent a strenuous "right-sizing." It closed many highway maintenance sheds and sold off assets like excess bulldozers. MoDOT officials did their best to plan ahead, for example by watching weather patterns closely so they can deploy snowplows where needed without leaving slack in the system.

"I was a critic up until about 2010," Libla said. "But when they started making the hard decisions, to run their department more like a business, I became a fan of theirs."

He added, "I'm a very conservative guy, I think we ought to manage our money well. But I do know one thing: You can be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and it is costing more money in the long run."

Hough, from Springfield, likened Missouri infrastructure to homeowner upkeep.

"After a hailstorm," he said, "wouldn't you rather get your roof worked on and make sure it was up to snuff so that it doesn't start leaking into your walls and into your ceiling and mess up your insulation, and then you've got a much bigger problem?"

Feigenbaum, the libertarian analyst whose report rated Missouri's spending efficiency so highly, said a case for some form of increased taxpayer spending is at least plausible.

He compared the Show-Me State's No. 2 ranking to the state that came in dead last.

"New Jersey spends a lot of money," Feigenbaum said, "and has terrible pavement conditions. We sort of feel like New Jersey needs to get its house in order before they have any type of tax increase. Whereas Missouri, which is clearly being very efficient, you could make the argument that it's a well-run state DOT, and if there are legitimate needs, the state is a little bit more trustworthy to go ahead and spend the money wisely than some other states out there."