JEFFERSON CITY — The chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee has come up with a new approach to deal with the overcrowding on Missouri’s interstates — a statewide sales tax increase.
Central Missouri Sen. Bill Stouffer has proposed putting a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase on the state ballot to fund widening the state’s two longest interstates to eight lanes.
The Saline County Republican’s bill would use the sales tax revenue to widen Interstate 70 and Interstate 44.
The increase would raise $7.3 billion in 10 years. Stouffer said the plan also calls for a median to separate cars from large commercial trucks in most locations and therefore increase motorist safety.
Except for more congested areas, I-70, which connects Kansas City to St. Louis, and I-44, which connects St. Louis to Tulsa, Okla., are four-lane roads.
Patchwork repairs, which Stouffer said have cost between $70 million and $90 million a year, have kept the roads passable. But Stouffer calls such repairs, which are under the Transportation Department’s Smooth Roads Initiative, just a “Band-Aid” solution.
“Anybody that drives 70, anybody that drives I-44 knows we have a problem,” Stouffer said.
According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, there were 52 fatal crashes on both I-70 and I-44 in 2005, up from the previous year’s 38 on I-70 and 39 on I-44. In 2005, the department recorded a total of 5,944 crashes on I-70 and 3,069 on I-44.
But fellow Republicans in the Senate question whether Missouri voters would approve a tax increase.
“Why put it on the ballot?” asked Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Franklin County. “It has a 100 percent chance of failure if it gets to a ballot.”
Griesheimer said he supports a toll road approach. Other legislators have proposed asking voters to authorize toll roads over the years, but the idea has made little headway.
In 2002, Missourians overwhelmingly defeated a fuel and sales tax package for highways by a margin of nearly three to one.
When officials built I-70, barges, railroads and storage warehouses limited the number of large trucks on the road, Stouffer said. The highway was built for an average of 20,000 vehicles a day, he said. Now, an average of 40,000 vehicles a day use I-70, with more than 100,000 vehicles traveling near Kansas City and St. Louis and more than 70,000 traveling near Columbia.
I-44 has also seen an increase in traffic.
“They’re both over capacity and worn out,” Stouffer said. “If we don’t do something with them, they’re going to suck up every penny from everybody else.”
Stouffer said a sales tax increase is the quickest and least expensive option. It would also not fully affect those areas that have already created a transportation taxing district. The state would require those districts to only pay the difference between their current tax and the 1-cent increase.
His proposal, which would submit the issue to Missouri voters for final approval, would also help make Missouri the country’s distribution center, Stouffer said. The majority of goods are now transported via tractor-trailers. Stouffer said using a toll system to raise the needed money, an option preferred by other legislators, could scare truckers into Iowa or Arkansas and away from Missouri’s businesses.
Tom Crawford, president and CEO of the Missouri Motor Carriers Association, said some trucking companies would change their routes to avoid toll roads. That could mean traveling on roads not built to support an 80,000-pound, 18-wheel tractor-trailer.
“We will run freight out of Missouri. We will run freight into Arkansas if we try to toll I-70,” said Stouffer.
“Toll systems are very harmful to the trucking industry,” said Crawford, who added that simply stopping at the tolls could cost companies time and money.
Those costs could ultimately get passed on to consumers.
A tax increase is not the only approach before Missouri’s legislature to expand the state’s interstate system.
Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, has proposed a bill to construct toll plazas on the state highway system, specifically on I-70. The proposal caps the cost of driving the entire length of I-70 at $5, according to the bill.
The toll road idea, however, has made little headway in Missouri’s legislature. But a prior sponsor — Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City — said he still thinks the toll system is the state’s best option.
“I think it may be difficult to pass a sales tax because you’re affecting every Missourian, even those that never drive on I-70 and I-44,” Scott said. “It’s a tough sell. It’s a real tough sell.”
Scott said 1982 marked the last time Missouri voters approved a 1-cent sales tax increase. It was for education, and even then, the state rolled back half of the property tax, he said.
Despite others’ concerns, Stouffer said he was optimistic about his plan.
“When I have a chance to explain to a group what they get with that penny, their reaction is usually ‘you mean a penny will do that?’” Stouffer said. “I really think it’s a matter of education.”