Motorists in Missouri grumble frequently about driving along bumpy, deteriorating sections of Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.
But when it comes time to figure out how to pay to better maintain that key highway, along with other roads and bridges in the state, mum seems to be the word.
One key contributing factor: The state’s gasoline tax hasn’t gone up in 17 years, even while billions of dollars worth of road and bridge repairs have been put off for lack of funding.
Leaders of the road construction industry and others want to ask Missouri’s voters to approve a hefty one-cent sales tax increase in 2014, and use the money to fix these public assets.
But their preliminary plan contains several flaws.
- It is a big leap away from the “user pays” world in which motorists help finance road repair and construction through a gasoline tax.
- While raising about $800 million annually, it would bump up the costs of everyday necessities such as food.
- It largely would fall on Missourians; many drivers from outside the state who use the state’s roads would pay little if anything in sales taxes to maintain them.
- It would continue the race to jack up regressive sales tax rates.
Instead of pursuing this option, The Star has long favored boosting the state’s gasoline tax to help repair Interstate 70 and thousands of miles of other roads, along with bridges.
Missouri’s gasoline tax as of July 1 was the fifth lowest in the nation at 35.7 cents a gallon. (The diesel tax was 41.7 cents a gallon, fourth lowest in the country.)
The state’s gasoline tax includes a federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon — which hasn’t gone up since 1993.
That’s a big reason U.S. funding for road repairs in Missouri and other states has badly lagged behind the rising costs of construction.
Only Alaska, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Carolina have lower gasoline taxes. Wyoming used to be lower, but the state legislature recently increased it by 10 cents to 42.4 cents a gallon.
Indeed, seven other states boosted gasoline taxes this year, thanks to lawmakers in Maryland and to laws in six other states that automatically made sure their taxes kept pace with inflation.
That’s an excellent concept — used by a total of 16 states — and one that Missouri ought to consider.
Those increases help counter the “everyone hates taxes” mantra that too many people throw out.
Actually, as elections often show, voters will approve higher taxes if they think the city, school district or, in this case, the state has solid plans for using new funds.
The same could be true in Missouri if elected officials and state bureaucrats put together a proposal that showed all of the road improvements that a gasoline tax increase could provide for motorists.
Then voters could judge for themselves if they thought those upgrades were worth the investment in tax revenues.
Gasoline tax critics have a point in noting that more fuel-efficient vehicles are cutting into gasoline and diesel tax receipts. Missouri’s total fuel tax revenues were $520 million in 2008 but have hovered around $500 million a year since then.
Still, a boost in Missouri’s gasoline and diesel fuel taxes to the national averages of 49.5 cents a gallon and 54.8 cents a gallon, respectively, would bring in about $400 million more a year.
That’s about half the annual yield of a 1-cent sales tax increase.
If leaders find the amount insufficient, they could boost it with an even higher gas tax; combine it with a modest sales tax increase; or impose tolls, the ultimate user fee, on some roads.
Missouri will need to pay more in the future to maintain its lengthy transportation network.
Putting the full lug on taxpayers through a new one-cent sales tax is not the best way to finance that priority.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.