SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A 23 member panel held a third meeting in its quest to determine the financial future of roads and bridges in Missouri.  The 21st Century Transportation Task Force is charged with assessing the state road system and determining the funding source and level needed to sustain it.

Missouri Transportation Task Force hearing at the Springfield Chamber of Commerce
Wednesday’s hearing in Springfield focused on the impact of transportation on business and economic development.

The roads are funded through user fees, the motor fuel tax, the sales tax on vehicle purchases and registration and driver’s license fees.

Missouri’s faced with a unique challenge compared to most other states.  Because it maintains all of the lettered roads that would otherwise be handled at the county level, it has the seventh largest system at over 33,000 miles.

But its funding level is 47th in the country.  The low ranking has been attributed to a failure to adjust the user fees for inflation over time.

The motor fuel tax was last increased by 6 cents in 1996, as part of a bipartisan 1992 agreement by former Governor John Ashcroft (R) and a legislature controlled by Democrats.

Fees for vehicle registration and drivers’ licenses have not increased since 1984, while some other fees haven’t increased since 1969.  Under state law, known within the Missouri Constitution as the Hancock Amendment, voters would have to approve any user fee hike to fully fund roads.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has pegged the cost at $825 million per year.

Dan Mehan of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce gave a presentation before the task force.  He thinks the public must be convinced about the necessity for more money. “A public awareness campaign of the safety issues involved, and the economic issues involved is absolutely essential,” said Mehan.

Gary Salamido of the North Carolina Chamber joined Mehan at the hearing.  His organization spent $1 million on campaigns to determine the transportation needs of that state, and inform decision makers on what those needs were.

The fundamental issues proved to be safety, economics and congestion.  The North Carolina Chamber created an attention grabbing TV ad showing a bridge collapsing with a school bus full of children on top of it.

Once stakeholders and lawmakers were made aware of the urgency of the issue, legislation was passed to raise money for roads.  The result has been a $2.6 billion infusion to transportation funding since 2015, which Salamido says is dramatically improving highway infrastructure.

“It’s really working,” said Salamido.  “We were noticing congested areas getting accelerated, that were going to be ten to fifteen years before that got done, they’re getting done in five.”

Missouri and North Carolina have similar transportation patterns because both states have a mix of urban and  rural communities featuring farmlands and metro populations.

Representing the business community at the hearing in addition to the Chambers was Ray McCarty with Associated Industries of Missouri.  He thinks it’s important to generate public support for road improvements before they deteriorate to the point they become dangerous.

“Unfortunately, we don’t want to wait until the roads get bad” said McCarty.  “So it’s very much a chicken and egg thing.  You don’t want to wait until the roads are bad and you have a disaster like Minnesota to start taking action and correcting it.  We want to stop it before people die.”

The busy I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

Springfield resident Terry Donelson attended the task force hearing.  He wasn’t confident lawmakers would find a funding solution for Missouri’s roads.  “The result is going to be the state needs more money, Donelson said.  “It’s up to elected leaders to figure out how to get it done.  I don’t see that happening yet.”

(Jason Taylor, Missourinet)