At more than 60 years old, Kansas City’s Buck O’Neil bridge is nearing the end of its useful life. And it’s one of thousands across Missouri that the state Department of Transportation can’t afford to replace.
In 2017, MoDOT gave the city two options: It could make major repairs, which would mean closing the bridge for two years. Or the city could make smaller repairs but keep it open to limited traffic.
The latter would buy time to plan for a new bridge, which the city would need to pay up to $40 million. But the first option was a non-starter for Mayor Sly James.
“Closing the bridge for two years is the least acceptable option we have. Because that is the main artery into our downtown business area,” he told the city council at the time. The city eventually chose the small-repair route.
Missouri has one of the country’s largest networks of roads and bridges, but when it comes to funding it, the state ranks 46 out of 50, according to 2015 federal highway statistics. Lawmakers have attempted but failed to raise the state’s gas tax, which pays for some repairs. So it’s now in the hands of Missouri voters, who on Nov. 6 will decide whether to approve a measure that would raise the tax for the first time in 22 years.
There’s virtually no opposition to the measure, as most politicians and business groups support the fuel tax hike, called Proposition D. The gradual increase — 10 cents over 4 years — would generate $412 million a year for MoDOT once fully phased in. A portion of that would be distributed to the state’s cities and counties for their own infrastructure, and part of it would help fund the state’s highway patrol.
According to SaferMO, the campaign committee for Prop D, Jackson County cities would get nearly $13 million annually; Kansas City would see $7.2 million a year and Independence would get $1.8 million.
MoDOT director Patrick McKenna said 17 cents a gallon doesn’t go nearly as far as did back in 1996 — the last time the state raised the gas tax. MoDOT’s current budget only allows to fix critical needs around the state, which has left cities facing tough decisions when it comes to addressing infrastructure needs.
“So we've lost 10 cents in purchasing power and that's a big reason why we have the conditions that we have — we're purchasing less than half we could,” McKenna said.
Cities find another way
Lee’s Summit officials faced a difficult situation about 15 years ago, when they were looking to spur development by rebuilding the highway interchange near U.S. 50 and Blue Parkway.
Dena Mezger, the city’s public works director, said it was important for the city’s growth, even though it wasn’t a state priority. She said “it was kind of a vision for what could be in the area if we had good highway access.”
The city came up with more than $35 million for the project — at the expense of taxpayers. Lee’s Summit instituted a special sales tax and redirected property taxes through tax increment financing, or TIF.
“That was our first TIF project in the city also. So that was a big leap for the city to make that commitment,” Mezger said.
Today, the area is bustling with retail and apartments. And Lee’s Summit has repeated that process to rebuild several other state-owned highway interchanges.
These are the kinds of projects that are on MoDOT’s wishlist: road additions and improvements that attract economic development. An increase in the gas tax probably won’t generate enough for the state to tackle those local projects, but if MoDOT has the money to better maintain existing roads, McKenna said it could do more to match local governments’ funding for infrastructure projects.
“So we have some good tools. They're under-resourced, and they can be expanded to the extent that more resources are available,” McKenna said.
No organized opposition
The GOP-controlled legislature is generally tax-averse, and efforts in Jefferson City to raise the fuel tax failed in 2015 and 2016.
Voters haven’t been willing to raise their own taxes either. In 2014, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would’ve created 10-year sales tax for transportation projects.
But Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe recently told KCUR he thinks this approach is more palatable. Kehoe and Gov. Mike Parson, both Republicans, have been touring the state encouraging voters to approve the fuel tax increase.
“Missouri is not ready for toll roads yet and that's only a corridor fix even when you do have them,” Kehoe said. “So when you look at a three or four different ways of funding a highways, it seems like, according to Missourians, this would be the one that … had the best chance to succeed.”
Almost no one is openly opposing the measure, though GOP state representative Mike Moon tried — and failed — to get it removed from the ballot. Moon who is from Ash Grove, Missouri, along with political activist Ron Calzone of Dixon, argued that the referendum tackles too many subjects, because it also contains a tax exemption for Olympic medals won by Missouri residents. An Osage County judge ruled that the measure met constitutional requirements.
Other supporters include Missouri Chamber of Commerce. And the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank which generally opposes tax increases, has not taken a position, although it published a blog post in May that said a user-fee model like a fuel tax increase is “vastly more fair.”
Even the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, which usually opposes fuel tax increases, is not taking a stance on the proposition. They referred KCUR to SaferMO spokesperson Scott Charton, who called it a “targeted, clean approach” that is “paid by those who are actually using the roads.”
Charton and state officials are counting on voters to be willing to pay more at the pump so the state can keep up with basic infrastructure needs.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.