At AIM Tax, Business and Manufacturing Conference: Panel discusses possible transportation funding solutions

Trying to maintain Missouri Highways in the 21st century on 20th century funding.

That’s how State Senator Doug Libla (R-Poplar Bluff) characterizes the funding problems besetting the Missouri Department of Transportation. The state’s last gas tax increase came in 1996. As Libla sees it, the gas tax has not kept pace with inflation.

“We have a lot of numbers people in here today,” said Libla as he addressed attendees at Associated Industries of Missouri’s annual Tax, Business and Manufacturing Conference Thursday. “(MoDOT) has been operating at 53 percent purchasing power from what we had in 1996.”

Ray McCarty (left) moderates the panel on MoDOT funding. (Left to Right) Sen. Doug Libla, HIghways and Transportation Chairman Stephen Miller, American Council of Engineering Companies of Missouri president Bruce Wylie, Mike Right, vice president of AAA Automobile Club of Missouri.
Ray McCarty (left) moderates the panel on MoDOT funding. (Left to Right) Sen. Doug Libla, HIghways and Transportation Chairman Stephen Miller, American Council of Engineering Companies of Missouri president Bruce Wylie, Mike Right, vice president of AAA Automobile Club of Missouri.

Libla was part of a panel of distinguished guests representing all sides of  the transportation funding conundrum in Missouri. Along with Libla, the chairman of the Senate’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee, the panel included Stephen Miller, the chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission; Bruce Wylie, president and CEO of the American Council of  Engineering Companies of Missouri representing road construction interests; and Mike Right, vice president of the AAA Auto Club of Missouri, representing consumers. Ray McCarty, representing the Missouri Transportation and Development Council moderated the discussion.

Miller said Missouri is in a plummet to the bottom of highway funding among the states. Miller told the group Missouri, with the seventh largest highway system in the nation, is currently 47th in the country in funding per mile. Miller also said Missouri has been given a great legacy of roads and transportation infrastructure, and MoDOT needs funding to protect that legacy.

“It’s all been given to us and we are sitting here watching it decay and fall apart,” said Miller. “We don’t have enough money to maintain what was given to us by prior generations, much less to do the things we ought to be doing to move forward.”

In Missouri, solutions to the funding crisis have proven elusive, with voters turning down gas tax increases and a recent legislative attempt to raise the state gas tax on gasoline and diesel purchases that failed in the Missouri Senate. Wylie says it’s not that way in other states.

“I get frustrated when I go to our national meetings, I get reports from our states around the country that are doing state funding…gas taxes, tolls, fee increases, that kind of thing,” said Wylie. “Because of the paralysis in Congress, a lot of the states are stepping up and trying (to fund transportation) by themselves.”

Wylie said Congress is working on a six year highway funding bill, but only providing funding for three years.

Right says the average state tax on gasoline is about 30 cents per gallon. In Missouri, the tax is 17 cents.

“We poll our members on a regular basis, and invariably they are telling us that they are in support of additional revenue going to transportation maintenance and improvements,” Right said. “We have supported the last two endeavors that ultimately went to the voters and unfortunately, both were rejected.”

Right said his organization would be supportive of another vehicle that would be supported by the voters or by legislators that would bring significant funding to the transportation needs of the state.

But therein lies the rub. With voters seemingly in no mood to raise taxes or fees by large amounts, transportation supporters need to find some kind of funding source that can keep pace with future need and increasing costs.

Miller says all options are on the table, from gas tax hikes, to sales taxes, to tolls, to taxing districts for local improvements, to other more revolutionary funding streams that could come from advanced engineering of future transportation systems.

“We have to have enabling legislation in Missouri that makes Missouri friendly to that kind of innovation,” said Miller. “We need to make Missouri attractive for private business to come.”

“I think the opportunities are there, I think we just lack some of the political will to make them happen,” said Miller.