Missouri Republicans push no-tax road funding plan

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Top Republicans are pitching a plan to fix Missouri roads and bridges with money being saved by cuts to welfare programs.

Rather than raise the state’s fuel tax, GOP leaders say recent changes in programs for poor people will allow the state to generate $1 billion to $2 billion for road programs over the next decade.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said the proposal would help Missouri create a “well-developed infrastructure that is critical to ensuring the effective functioning of the economy.”

The measure comes after the endorsement by a Senate committee of a plan to raise the state’s 17-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax by 1.5 cents to launch a road upgrade program. The tax increase concept is also supported by the Missouri Department of Transportation and Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

The governor’s office sharply criticized the GOP proposal late Wednesday.

Nixon’s spokeswoman Channing Ansley, in a statement, said, “By diverting general revenue toward road funding, this budget gimmick could jeopardize priorities such as local public schools, higher education and services for Missourians with developmental disabilities and mental illness. The Governor has been clear that he supports fiscally responsible ways to invest in our roads and bridges without putting priorities like education and mental health at risk.”

For weeks, Republicans, including House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, have said they want to avoid a tax increase by using money currently in the budget.

As outlined by state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, the new no-tax plan relies on savings that have come via changes the GOP majorities in the House and Senate pushed through the Legislature.

“Our state’s transportation infrastructure is deteriorating and has become an impediment to our economic growth potential, our regional competitiveness and our citizens’ safety,” Schaefer said in a prepared statement. “We need to invest in improving our infrastructure while making sure our tax dollars are spent responsibly.”

The “Strengthening Missouri Families Act” approved over the objection of Nixon last spring was expected to remove an estimated 6,400 poor children — including more than 2,600 children younger than 5 — from public assistance.

The changes include lowering lifetime welfare benefits and adding new requirements affecting how quickly welfare recipients must find jobs.

CRITICAL PROJECTS

Underscoring the need to move forward on critical road projects despite funding uncertainty, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission approved on Wednesday a plan to build a replacement for the Champ Clark Bridge, which connects Illinois to Louisiana, Mo. The 87-year-old bridge tops the list of rural spans MoDOT says are most in need of replacement but that the agency had said it could not afford to replace.

Illinois has already pledged to pay half the cost of a new $60 million bridge. Missouri had been unable to come up with its portion. But the awarding of a $10 million federal grant to be split between the states gives a firm deadline of Sept. 30, 2017, for when the project must be under way.

So now Missouri somehow must come up with $25 million, said Paula Gough, MoDOT’s northeast district engineer.

On Wednesday, the commission approved a plan to begin a design-build project to replace the span, in which MoDOT sets a project’s goals and budget and the contractor who best meets those goals within budget will craft its design and schedule.

That means key details, such as what will be built and the schedule for construction, won’t be known until the project is awarded.

And when the new bridge is done, a different one will take its place atop the list of those most in need of replacement — the span over the Mississippi River that connects Perry County to Chester, Ill.

Others must be addressed soon, state officials said. Dennis Heckman, the state bridge engineer, told highway commissioners that more than $1 billion was needed to replace 12 major bridges across the state and to renovate another 20 over the next decade.

The bridges in the St. Louis area in need of replacement are on Interstate 44 in Fenton over the Meramec River; the Chain of Rocks bridge that spans the Mississippi River on Interstate 270; and the Highway 40 (Interstate 64) ramp bridge near 18th Street in downtown St. Louis.

Steve Miller, commission chairman, said some of the funding pressure on the state had grown less bleak, thanks in part to the passage of a long-term federal funding plan and better-than-expected state revenue.

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