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Missouri highway chief warns of funding shortfall

Thursday, January 23, 2014 | 2:09 p.m. CST; updated 10:39 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 23, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY —  Without a new source of revenue, Missouri soon won't have enough money to adequately maintain its roads and bridges much less undertake any major new projects, the state's top transportation officials warned Thursday.

The "stark reality" described by transportation leaders already has begun to unfold and could serve as the rallying cry for an effort to put a 1-cent transportation sales tax on the November ballot.

Earlier this month, the state Highways and Transportation Commission decided to quit taking applications for a local cost-share program that has helped speed up the construction of 178 highway projects around the state since 1998. It also opted against adding any major new projects while updating its five-year construction plan.

Over the past five years, Missouri's construction budget for roads and bridges has fallen from about $1.3 billion annually to $685 million this year. It is projected to dip to $325 million by the 2017 budget, said Dave Nichols, the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

That's considerably shy of the $485 million annually that Nichols said it takes to maintain the highway system in its current condition.

"We're not going to be able to accomplish what Missourians want and expect from our state," Nichols said at a transportation conference hosted by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

State transportation officials have long been forecasting a decline in available construction dollars due to variety of factors. A bond-financed surge in construction during the last decade has now dropped off while the payments continue. Federal highway funding has become more uncertain. Fuel taxes have flattened out, partly because of more fuel-efficient vehicles. And construction costs have risen for materials such as concrete, asphalt and steel.

Various business associations and construction trades have been trying to build support for a proposed 1-cent increase in the state sales tax to finance roads, bridges and other modes of transportation.

The sales tax measure cleared both the House and Senate, but failed to win final passage in the waning days of last year's legislative session.

Supporters have been given approval to circulate an initiative petition to get the transportation sales tax on the November ballot. But the campaign group, Missourians For Safe Transportation and New Jobs, has not yet begun gathering the thousands of signatures needed from registered voters across the state.

Rudy Farber, a former state transportation commissioner who is an officer in the campaign group, said Thursday that supporters first want to see whether the Legislature will refer the measure to the ballot this year. If so, that could save about $1 million in petition circulating costs.

As of the start of this year, the campaign committee backing the transportation sales tax had a cash balance of a little more than $50,000.

State Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, filed a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that would ask voters to approve a 10-year, 1-cent sales tax that would generate an estimated $651 million annually for state transportation projects and $72 million annually for city and county roads. His measure next must go to a House committee for consideration.

Farber said that if the House passes the measure quickly, supporters could potentially overcome a threatened Senate filibuster. If the Legislature doesn't act quickly, he said it's possible the campaign committee could still pursue the initiative petition.

Initiative supporters must submit petition signatures by May 4 to the secretary of state's office. The legislative session runs through May 16.

State transportation commission chairman Joe Carmichael said the department's governing board hasn't endorsed a specific funding proposal.

But "I'm hopeful and prayerful that something will happen on that front," Carmichael said.


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