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Missouri needs matching funds to maximize benefits of transportation plan

gas prices, Missouri's gas prices
Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

Even with Congress backing a $305 billion transportation bill, Missouri could lose out if state lawmakers don’t find matching funds to maximize the opportunity being presented in the five-year bill — a first since 2005.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters in a conference call Wednesday morning that she’s been in conversation with MoDot officials about the need to find matching funds. “We have been a state that has benefited because we have lots of roads and the formulas have benefited Missouri. That will go away and we will be getting less than we paid in if Missouri doesn’t have its matching share.”

The federal government spends roughly $50 billion annually on transportation projects, with the federal gas tax covering about $34 billion, leaving an annual deficit of $16 billion.

The deficit is made up of several components. Just as in Jefferson City, lawmakers in Washington have refused to increase the federal gas tax for years. It has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since the early 1990s - only a few years after the Interstate Highway system was declared complete. The static tax rate has to contend with an aging highway system, more fuel efficient vehicles, and lawmakers dipping into those funds to cover other federal spending.

The highway proposal is being advanced in the form of an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill - meaning it provides the permission for spending, but does not include the money or an itemized list of projects to be funded. That will come later when lawmakers consider the omnibus spending plan needed to pass by the end of next week.

For lawmakers pushing a variety of proposals, getting their language into the authorization bill as a "provision" is a critical first step toward directing federal spending to priorities they support.

The highway plan officially re-authorizes the federal gas tax and includes more than $73 billion in so-called “pay-fors” from six primary sources, according to documents from the Congressional Budget Office and the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

•   $53.3 billion by capping the Federal Reserve surplus account - meant to cover certain losses

•   $6.9 billion by reducing dividends paid to banks that park funds in the Federal Reserve Bank

•   $6.2 billion in sales from the strategic petroleum reserve

•   $5.1 billion from increased custom user fees

•   $2.4 billion by hiring private debt collectors to help collect federal taxes

•   $395 million by revoking or denying passports for Americans with unpaid taxes

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says the five-year plan gives states, including Missouri, a better opportunity to figure out what they can do to “maximize their own resources to make the most of that highway bill.” Speaking to reporters in a conference call Wednesday morning, Blunt said that while “I don’t know that our state would want to look at the gas tax, but if they do look at the gas tax, the fact the gas tax wasn’t increased at the federal level makes it easier to do that.”

Blunt also says with the growing number of fuel efficient vehicles including, hybrids, all-electric cars and other technologies that may come along, “five years from now the mix of vehicles on the road is going to be substantially different than it is now” and lawmakers will have to figure out a fair way of charging those people who use the highway system.

The bridges of Missouri

Along with its road, rail and river transportation systems, Missouri has thousands of bridges that are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One provision in the plan, co-sponsored by Blunt and U.S. Sen.Bob Casey, D-Pa., would protect a dedicated revenue stream for so-called off-system bridges.

Withington Ford Bridge, the Bend Bridge was constructed in 1917 by the St. Louis firm of Miller and Borcherding, Pacific, Mo.,
Credit Missouri Preservation
The Withington Ford Bridge, also known as the Bend Bridge, was constructed in 1917.

The language was first included in the previous highway bill to help fund needed repairs and upgrades. MoDot Bridge Engineer, Dennis Heckman says that includes about 13,000 county and city owned bridges - slightly more than half of all the bridges in Missouri. Of those bridges, Heckman says about 2,300 are structurally deficient, meaning they are in need of repairs. Another 1,700 are structurally sound, but functionally obsolete, which in most cases means they are considered too narrow for the traffic they now serve.

Of the 10,000 bridges owned by the state of Missouri, about 1,200 are structurally deficient with another 1,000 considered functionally obsolete, according to Heckman.

Federal law requires states to inspect all of the bridges within their borders, even those not owned by the state, and failure to do so, could cost the state some of its federal funding. Heckman says state inspectors look at all of the bridges about once every two years.

What other area states are doing

While lawmakers in Jefferson City have not increased the state’s fuel tax in about 15 years, lawmakers in Iowa approved a 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline and diesel tax increase earlier this year, estimated to provide $215 million annually for city, county and state roads, according to local reports. In a bill signing ceremony, Republican Gov. Terry Brandstad said the measure showed how bipartisan cooperation on a difficult issue made “Iowa stand out as a state where we work together and get things done …” He also praised the law as being good for the state’s economy.

Beginning next month, drivers in Nebraska will start paying a phased-in gas tax increase to raise an estimated $75 million annually to fund road projects there. Starting Jan. 1, for each of the next three years, the state’s gas tax will increase by 1.5 cents a gallon. In boosting the tax, lawmakers overrode first-term Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto.

In Arkansas, a working group for Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to finalize several funding plans later this month to increase funding for highways. One plan reportedly would raise the motor fuels tax by 15 cents a gallon over three years to generate $300 million for state, county and city transportation projects.

In Illinois, The Quad City Times reported in February, that documents it obtained showed one plan under consideration would boost the state’s motor fuel tax by 13 cents a gallon to generate an estimated $1.8 billion in road and maintenance projects. However, nothing has happened on any proposal to restructure the state’s motor fuel tax as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state’s Democratic legislative leaders have been at a stalemate over Illinois’ budget for months.

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