JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri may be heading toward an infrastructure crisis.
That’s what some state lawmakers are saying if Missouri’s legislature can’t figure out a way to generate new revenue in the wake of Trump’s federal transportation plan, which looks to push much of the cost of construction onto states.
The proposal would allocate $200 billion for federal infrastructure spending, half of which would be available to states in the form of matching grants.
But with Missouri already facing serious shortfalls in transportation funding, some lawmakers think the new proposal will only amplify the state’s larger infrastructure woes by making it more difficult to attract federal dollars for future projects.
“We need to do something to address our transportation funding,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, who also chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. “That’s the biggest hurdle we face. The states that have the resources are going to be the ones that draw down federal dollars, while we’re going to be standing on the sidelines, unable to do nothing.”
For years, state lawmakers have been complaining about Missouri’s insufficient transportation funding.
According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, Missouri currently requires an additional $825 million to pay for the state’s high-priority transportation needs, like updating highways and repairing roads and bridges. Out of that, at least $170 million would be needed just to keep the state’s roads as they are right now.
That price tag is only going to grow, said MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna.
“That grows with inflation every year,” McKenna said. “That’s not a static number … because age and use are happening every day.”
Schatz said the state’s deficit will likely worsen under Trump’s infrastructure proposal because the new federal matching grants will be harder to obtain. Currently, Missouri puts up 20 percent of the funding for a project, and the federal government takes care of the rest.
But Schatz said that under the new federal proposal, those matching percentages will likely flip, meaning states will need to come up with 80 percent of a project’s funding before qualifying for federal grant money.
That will lead to more budget shortfalls, said Rep. Bob Burns, R-St. Louis, who sits on the House’s Transportation Committee.
Schatz agrees. Missouri is already pulling from reserves just to meet that 20 percent mark, he said, and lawmakers have yet to pass a more sustainable solution.
“We’re deficit spending right now,” Schatz said. “You can’t continue to do that. We’re just basically treading water.”
An unpopular solution
For many legislators, the solution to fixing the Missouri’s transportation deficit is as simple as raising the state’s gas tax. But the idea has historically been an unpopular one.
McKenna said Missouri lawmakers and the public have been arguing over raising the gas tax for nearly 30 years. “The last time we raised the gas tax was 22 years ago,” he said, “back in 1996.”
Recent efforts have been unsuccessful as well. In 2014, voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have gone toward transportation funding, and last year, a bill to raise the gas tax by 6 cents failed to reach legislative approval. Last month, the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force recommended raising the gas tax 10 cents and diesel tax by 12 cents.
Missouri has one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country, said Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, who chairs the House’s Transportation Committee. Raising it by 10 cents, he said, would bring in an additional $430 million annually for transportation needs.
But lawmakers can only do so much, as the Missouri Constitution, sets a limit to how much legislators can raise taxes each year. “Legislatively, our hands are tied,” he said. “All we can do is pass a bill that would put it to the vote of the people.”
Both the Senate and the House have bills this year that would put a gas tax hike on the ballot, but neither have referred the bills to committee — one of the first steps to turning a bill into law.
Other solutions have been proposed, including transferring $100 million from the general revenue to create an emergency bridge repair fund and creating a 4 cent sales tax that would go to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which would free up funds that MoDOT currently provides to the department.
But Reiboldt said raising the gas tax is the simplest and most sustainable solution. However, since it’s a campaign year for legislators, he said, it’ll be very difficult to pass any kind of tax increase.
McKenna said Missouri residents need to understand that different taxes pay for different things, and it’s the gas tax that pays for transportation.
“A lot of people think, ‘I paid my taxes, now fix my road,’ but they don’t actually know how transportation is funded,” he said. “And not knowing that over the last 20 or 30 years has put us in the situation we’re in today.”