Federal reports have shown the quality of Missouri’s highways ranks near the bottom when compared to that of other states. Although most local candidates agree the state’s highway funding method has serious potholes, there is no shortage of ideas for fixing the problem.
Most local state representative candidates support Amendment 3, which appears on the Nov. 2 ballot and would require that all taxes collected on fuel and automotive sales be earmarked for road improvements.
Currently, half the auto sales-tax revenue goes into the state’s general-revenue fund, which pays for state services such as education and health care. The other half goes to the Missouri Department of Transportation.
During the next four years, Amendment 3 would take the money out of general revenue and give it to the department for road and bridge projects.
The amendment would add an estimated $160 million annually to the department’s $1.6 billion budget by 2008.
Some groups are touting the amendment as an alternative to increased fuel taxes. Many gas stations in Columbia have signs on the pumps with slogans such as “Better roads, no new taxes.”
Both candidates in the race for 23rd District state representative support Amendment 3, but they caution that the actual road improvements might be small. Democratic incumbent Jeff Harris said the amendment is only a first step toward improving Missouri’s roads.
“It is not going to be a complete fix,” he said.
Republican challenger Dan Fischbach agreed, calling Amendment 3 a “largely symbolic issue.”
Ed Robb, state representative candidate in the 24th District, said the amendment is “still not enough to match the construction, maintenance and bridge problems in the state.”
“At some point, we’ll have to increase funding from some other source,” Robb said.
Some groups have dubbed the amendment “highway robbery” because it will take money from the fund that pays for education and health care.
Judy Baker, 25th District Democratic candidate, said there are other ways to find money for highways.
“I’m opposed to Amendment 3,” Baker said. “It’s not that I don’t think the tax should go toward roads; I think it’s premature. Until we have a plan to fund all the important things, it is premature to vote on Amendment 3.”
The amendment’s supporters, however, say money taken from the general fund can be trimmed or replaced by revenue that will result from economic growth.
Harris said Amendment 3 will improve Missouri’s infrastructure enough to encourage economic growth that will boost revenue in the long run.
“We need to look beyond the next fiscal year,” Harris said. “We need to look from a long-term perspective and find ways to grow our economy.”
Charging tolls on Missouri highways is another proposal on the table. In the previous legislative session, Harris filed a bill calling for an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that, subject to voter approval, would have authorized toll roads.
Harris stopped short of advocating toll roads but said the state needs to explore and consider them as a possible funding method.
Harris said the upside of the toll-road pitch is that the many truck drivers who crisscross the state would be responsible for paying for the damage they do to Missouri’s roads.
“It’s a user fee,” he said. “Right now, those big trucks that are tearing up our roads are not paying their fair share.”
Although the toll-road debate has been percolating for years, support for the proposal has been slow in coming. Seventy-one percent of Missouri voters rejected the idea in 1970, and 58 percent rejected it in 1992, according to the Associated Press. Last year, Harris’ bill never made it out of the House Transportation and Motor Vehicles Committee.
Other candidates expressed concern about how toll roads would be implemented.
Robb said the placement of toll booths could hurt businesses along the highways.
“Are we going to limit access to just where there are toll booths, or are toll booths going to be in the middle of nowhere?” he asked.
Bob Northup, Republican candidate in the 25th District, said he doesn’t support toll roads because they could make highways inaccessible for some.
Fischbach agreed, saying the tolls would be too hard on people who depend on the highway for their daily commute.
Democrat Travis Ballenger, 24th District candidate, said he would like to boost funding by closing corporate tax loopholes, eliminating casino loss limits and slightly increasing taxes on casino boat owners. He opposes an “across-the-board tax increase.”
Fischbach said he would support a fuel tax increase when Missourians are ready.
To ensure roads get proper funding, Northup said he also wants to serve on the House Appropriations Committee and reevaluate where all the money is going.
Baker wants to make highway funding a higher priority in the state’s budget.
“We need to do priority setting within the budget to find ways to fund the roads, but not at the expense of other programs that depend on that money,” she said. “I’d like to move money around into places that will have a bigger return on investment.”