Summer is approaching, a time when Missouri residents hit the road for a little rest and relaxation. It might be a rougher-than-expected journey, though, as legislators aren’t making transportation projects a priority during the 2017 session.
In the meantime, the Missouri Department of Transportation is using a reserve fund to maintain the state’s roads and bridges — money that’s supposed to go toward emergencies and natural disasters. MoDOT chief engineer Ed Hassinger said it’s not an issue right now, but will be if the department has to draw from it for another three years.
“Fatalities on our roadway system are up, and there are a lot of safety improvements that we’re just not able to get to that we would like to be able to get to,” he said. “That doesn’t even talk about the projects to spur economic development, people that want new interchanges to spur business or things that we need to do to reduce congestion in our major urban centers.”
Missouri has the seventh largest highway system in the United States, and the cost of maintaining it has increased while the money Missouri sees from its 17.3 cents per gallon fuel tax — close to the bottom in the nation —hasn’t.
Two years ago, transportation commissioners moved to a drastically reduced maintenance plan. Only 8,000 miles of roads would be fully maintained, and the remaining 26,000 would only see pothole repairs and snow removal.
It was scrapped due to the passage of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, but the $1 billion in federal money isn’t enough for Missouri to afford to take on any major transportation projects, only maintain its full 34,000 miles of roads.
The future of roads
The state, however, has virtually nothing to put toward planning for and contracting out new projects. Plus, there are no plans on how to improve Interstate 70, which runs the length of the state and is very popular; roughly 75,000 vehicles a day drove along some part of I-70 in the St. Louis area in 2015.
Hassinger calls I-70 the poster child for Missouri’s transportation funding woes, but warned there’s more to consider.
“It’s really not just I-70; I-44 is not that far behind,” he said. “It’s a huge issue, because the interstates are where commerce moves in this state, that’s where freight moves, that’s how we efficiently move people and services around the state, so it’s a critical part of our system that we really need to figure out how we’re going to reconstruct that.”
Two options to help pay for I-70 have been floated and roundly rejected by lawmakers in recent years: raising the state’s fuel tax and turning I-70 into a toll road.
But most of the GOP-majority legislature considers toll roads to be another form of taxation. Republican Rep. Bryan Spencer of Wentzville recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Missouri Times explaining his opposition to them, and Republicans have gone so far as to propose a ban in the state budget on the use of state or federal money for “any costs associated with the tolling of interstate highways.”
Neither option is ideal for various special interests, from the trucking industry to local governments, according to lobbyist Leonard Toenjes, the president of Associated General Contractors of Missouri.
“All these different special interest groups just keep us in sort of a circular firing squad situation, where we continue to keep the guns aimed inward while other states — Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas — all continue to make investments in their systems,” Toenjes said.
Contractors feel the pinch, too
Putting more money toward roads and bridges could help minority-owned businesses, said Lionel Phillips. He runs Phillips Concrete Services in St. Louis, and said he’s never received a contract from MoDOT.
“I put it on myself, I don’t put it on anybody else,” he said. “I can’t put it on contractors, whatever, because the name of the game is having a competitive bid, but if there’s more opportunities to bid, I’ll figure out how to get selected.”
Even big contractors are feeling neglected. Chip Jones with Emory Sapp and Sons, which does road and bridge construction for several states including Missouri, said the company has only five contracts here this year.
“We can usually handle anywhere, depending on the size of the project, (from) five to 15 easily,” he said. “Unfortunately the size of the projects were more of a maintain (type), so it’s just piecemealing the existing infrastructure, (and) so the size and the scope is way down.”
Jones said he understands why lawmakers and voters don’t want to raise taxes, but believes better roads are a highway for growth in other critical areas.
“Sometimes I think people want the education before the highways, but I truly believe if you go look at other states, once the highway program is in place, the businesses come, then the improvement in living, and the schools improve as well,” he said.
Some lawmakers filed major transportation funding bills in January, but nearly all have gone nowhere, and aren’t likely to see action with only three weeks left in session.