State Officials Look for Funding Fix for I-70

2 years 7 months 2 weeks ago October 15, 2013 Oct 15, 2013 Tuesday, October 15 2013 Tuesday, October 15, 2013 7:11:00 PM CDT in News
By: Nick Thompson, KOMU 8 Reporter

JEFFERSON CITY - After state lawmakers failed to pass a transportation funding proposal in the last legislative session, state officials are now looking at the next steps they can take to get more money to repair the nation's oldest interstate. 

Interstate 70 is the main artery through Missouri, connecting its two largest cities. Nearly 60 percent of Missouri's population lives within 25 miles of the roadway. 

Bob Brendel works as a special project manager for MoDOT in Jefferson City and has long looked at proposals to fix the highway. As a Columbia resident, Brendel said he often encounters the bottlenecks at tightly packed interchanges within the Columbia city limits.  

Brendel said I-70 was designed to last 20 years. More than fifty years later after it was built, thousands of large semi-trucks and vehicles are driving on the original roadbed. Some of the current I-70 infrastructure dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. 

"With good maintenance and attention over the years, we have got a lot of life out of I-70," Brendel said. "But it actually needs to be re-constructed from the ground up, and it needs added capacity."

Brendel said MoDOT spends $70-90 million annually on repaving and maintaining I-70. However, when workers repave, they are paving over the more than 50 year old roadbed, which Brendel said needs to be rebuilt. 

Brendel also said MoDOT has to make some tough decisions when it decides to repair bridges or other parts of the infrastructure because it has to decide whether it should make repairs based on the interstate's current footprint or make them based on what the highway will be like in the future. 

For example, Brendel said most of I-70 was built with a 40-foot median. The standard has since changed to 60 feet. Brendel said the new Route Z bridge in Boone County near Battle High School was built to accommodate a 60 foot median width. Without future direction, the department has to decide as whether it should repair overpass bridges to accommodate the old median width or the new standards. 

LESS FUEL, FEWER REVENUE DOLLARS 

Missouri's transportation system is funded primarily by fuel taxes, as revenues from state and federal fuel taxes account for nearly 70 percent of MoDOT's funding each year. While the cost of fuel has risen for consumers in the last decade, fuel tax rates remain flat and have not increased relative to the increase in gas prices. The consumer has paid more, but the state's transportation coffers see fewer and fewer of those dollars. 

Average gas prices increased in Missouri from $1.13 per gallon in 1992 to $3.69 per gallon in 2012. 

Several factors have driven a decrease in fuel consumption, thereby reducing fuel tax revenues.  Consumers have driven fewer miles and have begun to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles. 

The federal fuel tax rate of 18.4 cents per gallon has not budged since 1993 and the state fuel tax rate of 17 cents per gallon has not increased since 1996. Brendel said MoDOT needs a new funding source because it currently has just enough to maintain current transportation infrastructure. 

"Funding transportation solely off of the fuel tax is problematic," Brendel said. "It does not afford us enough revenue to enhance our system." 

Lower fuel tax revenues have led to some belt-tightening at MoDOT. In 2011, MoDOT cut more than a thousand jobs as part of a plan to cut more than $500 million worth of costs. In 2012, MoDOT cut its budget nearly in half.  In the current budget year, MoDOT officials are working with the smallest budget since 2005. 

State officials have sounded warning signs about the future of I-70 while these budget trends have developed. 

Former MoDOT director Kevin Keith told a committee in 2012 that I-70 will become a "gravel parking lot" if nothing is done in 10-15 years and said the state needs $2-4 billion to rebuild it. 

Brendel said if Missourians want an enhanced transportation system for the future, they will have to make choices. 

"It's choices about where you want those improvements made and whose going to pay for it," Brendel said. 

According to MoDOT, the rural portion of the interstate from Independence in the Kansas City area to Wentzvlle in the St. Louis area needs to be rebuilt. 

The state has considered a proposal to widen the freeway to six lanes in that nearly 200 mile stretch, and has considered building an eight-lane freeway in which four lanes would be dedicated to truck use. Brendel said the six-lane proposal is more likely because it can be built cheaper, closer to Keith's $2 billion figure than the $4 billion needed for the eight-lane proposal. 

VOTE OF THE PEOPLE 

In the last legislative session, lawmakers deliberated over a bill to give Missourians a choice in solving the transportation funding issue. 

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, sponsored a proposal to put a temporary one-percent sales tax increase for transportation projects on the 2014 general election ballot. If passed by voters, the tax increase would stand for ten years and raise billions of dollars for new transportation projects. 

Five percent of the new funds would have gone into a fund specifically for counties and five percent into a fund set aside for cities. The other 90 percent of the funding would go into a general road fund and would be managed by the state transportation commission.

The proposal passed the Senate, passed the House and went back to the originating chamber where Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, and several other fiscal conservatives defeated it in a final days filibuster. 

Kansas City Star columnist Barb Shelly condemned the filibuster and said Missouri was becoming the "Do-it-Yourself State," writing groups of Missourians would likely have to go through the lenghty initiative petition process to get the tax increase on the ballot. 

Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs filed an initiative petition with Secretary of State Jason Kander's office Sep. 16. The language in the petition is roughly identical to Kehoe's senate proposal. 

In a statement the day of the filing, the group said the plan has a wide array of bi-partisan backing and will create a more modern and reliable transportation system.

"Missouri sits at the crossroads of this country, and the future of our economy is dependent on making these critical transportation improvements," the group wrote.

LAMPING: LET LAWMAKERS DECIDE

KOMU 8 News spoke with Lamping during the September veto session and he explained in detail his reasoning for the filibuster. Lamping said the sales tax proposal would have generated $10 billion in new taxes during the life of the tax increase and would increase overall tax revenues by 10 percent. 

Lamping said it would have been too high a tax increase and said he did not want to punt the decision to voters. Instead, Lamping said people send elected officials to Jefferson City to make decisions such as how to fund transportation improvements like a new I-70 and said lawmakers can solve the problem with the state's current budget and tax structure. 

Lamping has served in the Senate for three years and admitted he is relatively new to government, working most of his life in the private sector. Lamping said the state's roads are analogous to assets owned by private sector companies and said he was shocked to find Missouri does not set aside money to account for the depreciation of an asset like I-70. 

Lawmakers budget each year around a consensus revenue estimate and that estimate also accounts for the rate of growth in state revenues. Lawmakers use this to determine how much general revenue they will have to work with. General revenue or "GR" makes up about a third of the state budget. 

Lamping said for the first time, lawmakers should look to make use of this discretionary spending to set aside money for roads. 

Lamping said he will propose legislation in the next session to dedicate some of the increase in general revenue collections each year to transportation projects. 

"Currently we allocate zero percent of GR to roads and infrastructure," Lamping said. "My hope would be is that we come to a point where we can all agree that yes, we should be allocating more than none of our general revenue to infrastructure." 

SEVERAL CHOICES 

The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri's transportation needs released its final report in 2012, presenting the challenges state officials will have in planning the future of the transportation system, as well as possible solutions. 

The committee said the state needs up to an additional $1 billion to enhance the current system. The committee suggested the state could raise the state sales tax, raise fuel taxes, create toll roads, appropriate GR as Lamping suggests, issue bonds or increase license and registration fees. 

Tom Crawford, CEO of the Missouri Trucking Association, told KOMU 8 News a new I-70 would be safer and more profitable for his industry. Crawford said his group's first choice would be a fuel tax with the sales tax increase coming in second. Crawford said his group supports most methods for raising the money, but it will raise staunch opposition to any toll road proposal. 

Brendel said MoDOT supports any proposal that appropriates additional funds to the department. 

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