JEFFERSON CITY — A day after Missouri voters shot down a proposed sales tax increase to fund transportation projects, officials from the Missouri Department of Transportation said they were willing to put other funding options back on the table.
But finding a way to solve the department's budget woes will take some time, they warned. Solutions might include an increase in the fuel tax, installing toll booths or changing license and registration fees, most requiring legislative action.
"What's clear — what's not changed today — is that we have a problem with the funding for transportation. We have unmet needs," Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Steve Miller said during news conference Tuesday.
"There is going to be increasing pressure to find some solution for that. So I expect that this is going to be a continuing discussion as we move our way forward."
The ballot measure, Constitutional Amendment 7, would have increased the state's sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to fund more than 800 projects around Missouri. Despite millions of dollars spent on the campaign to support the amendment, 59 percent of voters rejected it.
In addition to funding new projects, the sales tax was meant to address long-standing budget problems for the transportation department.
The transportation department projects its construction budget to fall to about $385 million a year by 2017, a number it claims will leave it unable to improve Missouri's 33,885-mile highway system, according to a 2013 MoDOT report. And the department began downsizing in 2011 to accommodate the funding decreases, reducing its equipment load and its facility expenses.
A 2012 report from the Missouri Budget Project concluded that MoDOT needed to embark on a combination of fundraising methods to address these decreases.
But because voters overwhelmingly rejected a first attempt at shoring up department funds, transportation officials will be looking elsewhere to make up projected budget shortfalls.
The opposition to the sales tax proposal argued that it would disproportionately affect low-income residents, according to previous Missourian reporting. Instead, opponents said, it would make more sense to increase the gas tax or install toll booths across the state.
At Tuesday's news conference, transportation officials said these and other options were back on the table in the wake of the proposal's defeat.
Because car registration and drivers license fees haven't been adjusted since 1984, an increase is due, according to the 2012 report. Tripling the fees would cost residents with one car only $70 a year but could yield about $275 million a year for the department, according to the report.
The report also suggested that MoDOT construct toll booths along Interstate 70 to pay for road maintenance. The toll booths would also ensure that large, heavy trucks contributed to the fund, a move advocated by Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, which opposed the sales tax hike.
Without the estimated $540 million a year in additional funding, the department will have to focus on doing what it can to keep Missouri drivers safe, Transportation Department Director Dave Nichols said.
"We believe we're at the right size for our organization, and we're going to work diligently, but we do have a transportation funding challenge," Nichols said. "That's going to have to be addressed."
Both Nichols and Miller said they couldn't estimate when another proposal would be submitted, and they emphasized that more discussion would need to take place before anything surfaced.
Miller said he didn't prefer any funding method over another.
"Our job is to publicly let everyone know that we have to find new funding sources," he said. "We let the public determine what's fair and equitable."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.