JEFFERSON CITY — On the surface, many of Missouri’s most-traveled interstate highways now appear in good condition. Underneath, the crumbling substance cannot sustain them for much longer.
Similarly, voters may hear only a surface discussion — not substantive, concrete plans — from Missouri’s gubernatorial candidates about how to fix a looming transportation funding crisis.
Thanks to an influx of bond-financed cash from a 2004 ballot initiative, the Missouri Department of Transportation has been on an orange-barrel binge for several years — paving over potholes with fresh blacktop and generally improving the most-traveled roads.
But in little over a year from now, that construction boom will begin to crash.
The combination of rising bond payments, declining federal highway money, spiking construction costs and a still large list of projects means Missouri’s transportation revenues will be almost $1 billion short of its annual needs.
Put another way: Missouri’s current transportation funding would cover just 40 percent of its projected annual needs beginning in July 2009.
At a forum Friday at the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri’s three leading gubernatorial candidates acknowledged the state faces serious transportation funding troubles. They affirmed a consensus was needed for a solution, and they concurred the next governor must play a key role in developing and selling that plan to the public.
They all vowed not to raise the state’s motor fuel tax, which is one of the primary means of paying for roads.
But neither Democrat Jay Nixon nor Republicans Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman offered any concrete plan to improve the state’s roads and other modes of transportation. Nor did they give any indication they would roll out a transportation funding plan as part for their campaign platform before the November general election.
The best they could do was mention some ideas raised by others.
Steelman, for example, noted that some lawmakers have proposed dedicating 10 percent of the natural growth in the state tax revenues to transportation. Hulshof pointed out that others have suggested abolishing the gas tax in favor of a transportation sales tax.
And Hulshof and Steelman both raised the possibility of using private financing to pay for major projects, such as proposed truck-only lanes along interstates 70 and 44. While not ruling that out, Nixon expressed concern about the potential for foreign financiers to own Missouri’s roads.
There are two good reasons why Missouri’s gubernatorial hopefuls are reluctant to campaign on a specific transportation initiative.
First, any plan will require money. And that most likely will mean higher taxes in some shape or form. Very seldom does a Missouri politician campaign on a tax increase. And to do so in the current economic environment would virtually ensure defeat.
Second, as even the Missouri Department of Transportation notes, there is no consensus on which transportation projects have both the greatest need and public desire — much less how to pay for them.
Just last week, the transportation department scaled back its 20-year-need estimate from $37 billion to $31 billion. But the department has yet to release the list of projects covered by that estimate. Once that occurs, more changes are likely.
From a politician’s perspective, there’s very little to be gained by trying to put together his or her own list of priority transportation projects before the experts have done so.
As Nixon explained: “We’ve got to get that demand, that need side, real well-defined and real well-prioritized and ordered before we start talking about how that gets funded.”
The gubernatorial candidates appear to prefer to embrace a transportation plan also embraced by others.
As Steelman said: “When people participate and understand what our different options are, we can figure out a way to solve this problem, and the governor should take a leadership role in doing that.”
Even so, there is significant political risk to campaigning on a transportation spending plan.
As Hulshof said: “This may be the issue that causes me to be a one-term governor, because it’s going to be a very difficult issue to take on as governor, and yet I am willing to take it on.”
The last gubernatorial candidate to propose a major transportation spending plan as part of his campaign was Republican Jim Talent in 2000. He sought to issue $1 billion of bonds annually for 12 years for a massive road-building project. Talent narrowly lost to Democrat Bob Holden, who once in office had to pull together his own transportation tax initiative. Voters in 2002 soundly defeated a transportation tax plan placed on the ballot.
Transportation Department Director Pete Rahn says it could take a full year from now to build the project list, the financing plan and the political support necessary to sell a new transportation plan to the general public. Realistically, that means it could be 2010 before a transportation funding proposal appears on the ballot.
Without criticizing any of the gubernatorial candidates, Rahn observes about transportation: “It doesn’t have the sense of urgency as I believe it should have.”