JEFFERSON CITY – Recovery Act of 2009 funds are headed for Missouri highways, but the funding may be masking a bigger issue.
Missouri Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Kevin Keith told a group of Richmond people on Monday the state faces serious revenue shortfalls for road and bridge projects starting in 2011. Keith said the state would receive about $525 million from the Recovery Act.
“It’s nothing to sneeze at but we’re looking at, $33 billion of needs,” Keith said. “This is not going to fix our problems, but it is going to get a few things done.”
Keith said the state has averaged $1.4 billion in road and bridge projects the last couple of years. So far, year to date tax and licensing revenues are $30 million below expectations according to Keith. He said beginning in 2011, the department’s budget will be cut in half if revenue issues are not addressed.
“We lowered our expectations last year after taking into account the economy and gas prices, so it’s really bad,” Keith said.
Keith said the revenue shortfalls could add up to more than $400 million over the next five years if the trend continues. Keith said it not only leads to less projects but it also hurts MoDOT’s ability to do routine maintenance.
“If nothing changes from everything we know today, it’s going to be really bad,” he said.
Keith said one of two things needs to happen. Either taxes get raised, or Missourians will have to drastically lower their expectations when it comes to transportation.
Keith said Missouri, which has one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation, has not raised their tax in 16 years and licensing fees have been at the same level even longer. Currently, the Missouri gas tax is at $0.17 a gallon. Keith said just to complete the Interstate 70 and Interstate 44 projects would require doubling the tax.
Missouri Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer said using the gas tax to fund transportation projects has become outdated. He said the tax worked well when most cars performed at the same level of fuel mileage, but with today’s market some consumers pay three times the amount in gas tax than others. With more fuel efficient cars consumers are using less gas, but are taking up more space on the roads.
Stouffer said he likes the idea of a sales tax because it takes some of the burden off lower income citizens. Stouffer said food, medicine and housing are the three largest expenses for lower income families. He said lower income families are already paying the costs for putting goods on the shelf.
“Part of the cost of putting every package on the shelf is the infrastructure that took it to get it there,” Stouffer said. “In my mind it makes sense to pay for that infrastructure as you pick up packages off the shelf.”
Stouffer also made the same argument against user fees on the highways because it would just be rolled into the retail price.
Stouffer said the issue needs to be addressed soon, but talk about taxes is premature at this point. Currently MoDOT and other transportation advocacy groups are collecting information and holding public meetings to get an idea of what citizens want. He said if the state properly communicates and educates the public the problem can be solved.
“If we make the appropriate argument, they are going to support it,” he said. “If we don’t, they’ll tell us to go fly a kite.”