With 32,000 miles of state highways and more than 10,200 bridges, Missouri's highway system is the seventh largest in the United States. But much of the state's highway infrastructure is feeling the weight of years of inadequate maintenance.
The situation is nothing new. In a letter written for the Missouri Department of Transportation's 2007 Long Range Transportation Plan, Director Pete Rahn said the agency is working with "critically low spending levels" to repair and expand the highway system.
In 2005, a Missouri State Auditor's Office report said Missouri ranked 37th nationally in "how much it spent to preserve and maintain its roads," and that MoDOT historically has directed more money to road expansion rather than road repair.
The General Assembly is in the best position to initiate new funding for highways by placing proposals on statewide ballots, but it has been reluctant to do so in recent years. Here's how the local candidates for legislative seats view the issue.
Incumbent Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, who is seeking a second term, noted that the legislature needs public approval to increase revenue for highway projects. He reiterated what legislators have been saying for years: MoDOT has suffered from a credibility problem since the early 1990s, when it severely overestimated how much it could achieve with proceeds of a higher motor fuels tax.
Graham said that with Rahn as director and with progress on major projects such as Interstate 64/U.S. 40 in St. Louis, the department is beginning to boost its reputation. He did not offer specifics on new funding, however.
Republican Kurt Schaefer of Columbia said it's important that the state explore different sources of revenue for roads and bridges so that it keeps other money free for important areas such as education.
"We have so many highways that are major out-of-state transportation routes that we spend so much of our state dollars maintaining roads for out-of-state transporters. Those are the revenue sources we should be looking at — toll roads — so people in the state aren't the only ones maintaining roads for out-of-state truckers," Schaefer said.
Libertarian Christopher Dwyer of Columbia said the best strategy is to pay for road improvements by increasing the tax on motor fuels. "That way those who use the highways and roads actually pay for those highways and roads," he said.
Incumbent Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said maintaining infrastructure is a "huge issue" critical to the economic vitality of the region and the state. On par with the importance of roads and highways, Hobbs said are improvements to infrastructure such as railroads, sewers and water; ports for barge traffic; and telecommunications technologies such as high-speed Internet into rural communities. Improvements should be prioritized, he said, and finding the money is the biggest problem.
"It's going to take a statewide coalition," Hobbs said, adding it could take a couple of years. "First we need to sit down and find out what (stakeholders) want and need. Secondly, we need to look at how we're going to fund it."
Hobbs said options include toll roads and an increase in fuel taxes. "We need to think outside the box a little," he said. "Everything needs to be on the table — and combinations of all options. Then we can let the voters tell us what they prefer."
Democrat Kelly Schultz of Shaw said quality highways are key to economic development. In the largely rural 21st District, farmers need to be able to get products to market. But the state "has gotten itself into a mess on transportation," Schultz said.
Recent efforts to pay for roads and highways through bonding put MoDOT on the hook to repay the bonds with interest, she said.
"We had a 15-year plan that was oversold and under-funded," Schultz said.
Voters have since been reluctant to raise taxes for highways, she said.
"The most realistic way is to aggressively go after federal money," Schultz said. "We need to really start looking for solutions. Toll roads may be the way to go but are just one possibility. Whatever road we take to transportation funding, the priority is to be honest (with taxpayers) about what their dollars are buying."
Incumbent Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said the state needs a plan for funding infrastructure improvements within the next two years and the key to that will be to back away from partisan rhetoric to put together a plan. He noted it would take hundreds of millions of dollars.
Robb said it will almost certainly take a tax increase to meet the needs, but achieving that in the coming year will be difficult. "It'll be a very hard sell for Missouri taxpayers" given the slump in the economy, he said.
"Everyone realizes we don't have an adequate funding source. ... We'll have to debate a tax increase that hopefully will be as minimal as possible," he said.
Democrat Chris Kelly of Columbia agreed it's unlikely significant new highway funding will come next year.
"Everyone realizes it's important, but nobody's really talking about how to fix it," Kelly said. "Nobody is talking about a gas tax. A statewide, road-and-bridge bond issue may be a viable option, ... and I would consider it."
The problem, Kelly said, is that highway improvements require "big new money. I don't see an appetite for spending big new money. Fixing Missouri's roads: You're looking at a tax increase of significant proportions."
Kelly does not oppose toll roads. One project he wants to see is an interchange at U.S. 63 and Route H, which leads to Columbia Regional Airport. He said that would address safety and economic development.
Democrat Mary Still said she does not oppose toll roads but needs more information on specific plans before committing to one. She'd like to hear from experts at MoDOT and the business community.
"I would be very interested if there were proposals for specific places that were of more advantage to Missouri," she said, adding that the state might benefit from toll roads in metropolitan areas.
Still said she also is unsure whether she would support an increase in the gasoline fuels tax for highway projects.
"I would want to look first at diesel tax," she said.
Republican Ryan Asbridge is out of the country on deployment with Navy Intelligence. His campaign declined to speak on his behalf.