Proposition D: MO’s Rough Road to Logistical Competitiveness

By on September 6, 2018


by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

In 1996, Fox News first became a thing. There were only 100,000 websites in the world at that time. Parents were embarrassing their middle school kids by dancing the Macarena.

The year 1996 was also the last time that the motor fuel taxes that pay for transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvements in Missouri were increased.That year was the final phase of a four-year legislatively-mandated two-cent-per-year increase in the fuel tax. When that final increase went into place the total tax was 17 cents per gallon. Today, that 17 cents has the buying power of seven cents back then.

With the tap on federal transportation dollars dwindling down to a trickle, there is a struggle for MODOT to perform basic maintenance, much less fund major initiatives. The reconstruction of the Merchants railroad bridge (click for project summary) was rescued only by the Terminal Rail Association stepping up with funding. The delay of needed work on the I-270 North Corridor, which brings 500 million tons of freight a year through the area and has national transportation significance, threatens our future as freight corridor. (click for PDF of corridor study).

The irony of Missouri’s failure to fund infrastructure, even as the St. Louis region and the rest of the state promotes Missouri’s advantages as a logistical center, is not lost on the organizers of The  statewide coalition includes farmers, business people, professional associations, labor, city and county leaders and law enforcement supporters.  They are working together for the passage of “Proposition D,” a Nov. 6 ballot issue which would implement  a staged, four-year fuel tax increase totaling 10 cents per gallon. The increased funding would go to MODOT, to counties and municipalities, and to fund the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Terry Briggs, treasurer of SaferMO, finds it illogical that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lead its article on the SaferMO campaign kickoff event with a focus on how the campaign was being funded. “Campaign reports filed by the committee show large donations from contractors and contractor associations,” Post reporter Mark Schlinkmann wrote.

Briggs is executive director of the SITE Improvement Association and mayor of the City of Bridgeton. He notes that SaferMO has since received contributions from organizations like the  Missouri Association of Relators ($250,000), and contends that there’s nothing sinister in the construction industry funding infrastructure. He said that contractors and developers understand the correlation between transportation infrastructure and economic growth and development: No roads, no jobs, no construction. (Click here for a MODOT report on “Missouri’s Freight Corridors”)

The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here

In the 22 years since the state’s last fuel tax increase Missouri’s road system has grown by 6,200 miles and vehicle miles traveled on those roads are up by 25 million miles. The state’s highway system is now the nation’s largest and — after some painful belt tightening — MODOT is the ninth most efficient DOT in the country. But our funding for our transportation infrastructure ranks 46th in the nation.

Harry Truman, who repeatedly said, “The buck stops here,” was a Missourian. But the people of his native state have been historically reticent to tax themselves for transportation infrastructure. Missouri voters passed the first motor fuel tax in 1924. The last voter-approved fuel tax increase was a constitutional amendment, which passed in 1984.

The most recent attempt to bring an infrastructure-related increase before the voters was Constitutional Amendment 7 in 2014. That proposed sales tax increase  was resoundingly thumped by a margin of half a million votes. (Click here for a complete history of transportation funding in Missouri.)

The Legislative Sausage-Making of Proposition D

On Nov. 6, “Proposition D” will go before the voters. The language of the ballot issue reads:

Shall Missouri law be amended to fund Missouri state law enforcement by increasing the motor fuel tax by two and one half cents per gallon annually for four years beginning July 1, 2019, exempt Special Olympic, Paralympic, and Olympic prizes from state taxes, and to establish the Emergency State Freight Bottleneck Fund?

If passed, this measure will generate at least $288 million annually to the State Road Fund to provide for the funding of Missouri state law enforcement and $123 million annually to local governments for road construction and maintenance. Click here for the full text.

The piece about exempting Olympic prizes from state taxes offers a front-row seat view into the sausage-making of the legislative process. State Sen. Dave Schatz, (R-26th), chair of the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, said that the gyrations of legislative rules dictated that the fuel tax be tagged onto legislation that was already introduced and was a surefire pass vote in the Senate.  Why is this included in a proposition to build and fix roads? The original legislation started with the Olympic exemption. Lawmakers added the other provisions to this bill to avoid having to write a new bill.

Schatz has watched the state’s infrastructure buying power erode, first when he served on the House transportation committee and later in the Senate.

“As I’ve looked at this problem we just keep kicking the can down the road. MODOT has downsized, cut 1,500 employees, closed down facilities and sold equipment. They have become better stewards,” he said. Schatz said that MODOT ranks ninth in the nation in terms of efficiency, yet continues to be plagued by the lack of funding.

Proposition D will free $288 for infrastructure funding when it is fully implemented.  Other provisions of the new law would eventually extend the tax to all other forms of “motor fuel” including compressed natural gas, propane, hydrogen, and even electricity used for charging electric cars.  Overall, the new tax plan should raise more than $400 million in revenue per year.

Funding the Highway Patrol operations from new fuel tax revenues should free up enough money in the overall budget to allow significant increases in road building and maintenance programs, and the creation of the Freight Bottleneck Fund insures a mechanism for dedicating some funds for specific transportation needs, such as the I-270 North Corridor.

Schatz noted the success of recent police/public safety campaigns with voters. The messaging of SaferMO eschews the “failing infrastructure” tone of past unsuccessful transportation funding campaigns in favor of a focus on keeping family, friends, and coworkers safe.

While Schatz has been in tough negotiations with organized labor and union contractors as recently as this summer (over prevailing wage legislation), support for Proposition D has transcended political party and management/labor lines. The measure has the support of both the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the labor unions.

922 Bridges Too Far

Red triangles are the 922 bridges that are rated “poor” in the state of Missouri. 

(Click here to download a PDF of the map.)

The average age of the state’s bridges is 46 years and most of them were designed to last 50 years. Sixty percent of Missouri’s bridges are beyond their original intended life.MoDOT is responsible for maintaining nearly 10,400 bridges on the state system. The state currently has 922 bridges that have been rated “poor” by the Federal Highway Administration. Each year about 100 bridges fall into the “poor” category, and MODOT fixes or replaces about 90. The number of poor bridges in Missouri is rising steadily as the state struggles to hold its  own.

Bridges are rated on a nine-point scale, with 9 being a new bridge and 2 being a closed bridge. Missouri’s poor bridges carry a rating of 4 or less.The implications of bridges in this precarious situation was driven home by MODOT Patrick McKenna at the kickoff event for the Proposition D passage campaign held Aug. 28 at the Maryland Heights Community Center. McKenna cited the example of the I-70 bridge at Rocheport in Boone County. Without sufficient funding, he said, MODOT would be forced to shut down two lanes of the bridge at a time for reconstruction, backing up traffic on I-70 for hours. Given sufficient funding, Sen. Dave Schatz said, traffic could be rerouted around the bridge while it was reconstructed

Covering All the Bases

Terry Briggs of SaferMO and SITE said the potential for the state, counties, and cities to leverage state dollars with federal dollars exists. “We need to make sure that Missouri has the funds needed to match whatever funds come down from the federal government,” Briggs said.  “But, he added, “The Federal Highway Fund is close to bankrupt. They’re talking about changing the formula.” Missouri, Briggs feels, needs to mind its own house. That way, whatever comes from the federal government is gravy.

In short, regardless of what direction Washington takes, Missouri the “Show Me State” needs to “Show me the money,” and support public safety and infrastructure.

About Tom Finan