Highway officials fear rise in fatalities


From News Tribune staff and AP wire reports

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Missouri transportation officials warned Wednesday of a potential rise in traffic fatalities and bridge closures, after voters defeated a sales tax hike that would have funded hundreds of highway and transportation projects across the state.

The sales tax had been touted as a way to avoid an impending shortfall between Missouri’s needed road-and-bridge repairs and what it can afford to spend. The tax would have raised at least $540 million annually for 10 years.

Missouri has no alternative funding plan.

But a key lawmaker said Wednesday that he hopes to start a discussion next year about other ways to raise money for the Missouri Department of Transportation. Those could include higher vehicle registration fees, new fees for electric or hybrid vehicles, indexing the fuel tax to inflation or turning to private investors to build major road or bridge projects, said Rep. Dave Hinson, a Republican from St. Clair who sponsored the rejected sales tax proposal.

“We have to come up with an alternative way to raise revenues for MoDOT, because the funding issue is going to continue to get worse,” Hinson said.

The mood was subdued Wednesday at a meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. It approved an annual update to its rolling five-year spending plan that included just 30 new projects instead of the hundreds that have been typical in recent years.

Although commissioners didn’t officially campaign for the sales tax hike, they had hoped it would pass.

“It is a disappointing, sad day, but we’re moving forward and we’re going to keep doing our business,” said MoDOT Director Dave Nichols.

The campaign against the sales tax took to its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon to thank those who helped them win.

“Thank you Missouri voters!” the brief note said. “Amendment 7 was rejected … receiving only about 41percent of the vote statewide.

“Voters in the St. Louis region were even less favorable to the tax increase, with only about 33 percent voting yes.”

Since the votes still have to be certified, they still are considered unofficial.

But of the 998,495 ballots cast on the issue, statewide, only 407,532 voters (40.82 percent) endorsed the proposed tax, while 590,963 (59.18 percent) rejected it.

The proposal won a majority of votes in only 21 counties, out of 116 voting authorities counting ballots (114 counties, plus the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City).

In Mid-Missouri, only Camden County had more yes votes than noes.

Nichols said the agency needs to spend at least $485 million annually just to keep roads and bridges in good repair, and that doesn’t account for any major new projects.

Without additional revenues, MoDOT won’t be able to improve the shoulders on thousands of miles of narrow two-lane roads, potentially leading to a rise in traffic fatalities that had been declining in recent years, said transportation officials. Fatalities on Missouri’s roads already are up 3 percent so far this year compared with last year.

Because of the funding gap, transportation officials said the department may also be forced close some of the state’s 814 worst bridges, resulting in inconveniently long detours for drivers.

It may take time before voters can see the need for more transportation funding, said Commission Chairman Stephen Miller.

“The public will, at some point and time, have to embrace some form of new funding,” Miller said. “When that is, what that funding is, we don’t know.”

In its Facebook post, the “No On 7 Committee” said: “We all look forward to continuing the conversation about Missouri’s actual transportation needs, while planning a transportation system that looks to the future and paying for it with an equitable revenue stream.”

Nichols and Miller declined to criticize Gov. Jay Nixon’s opposition to the proposed sales tax increase.

But state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, who helped carry the proposal through the Legislature this year, said in a statement Tuesday night: “As the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, it is my sincere desire that in the coming days Governor Nixon will begin to lead on this issue and will endeavor to find a solution to a problem that is not going away.”

People won’t see anything different in the near future, Nichols said.

“Our focus is going to be on keeping Missourians, and the people who travel on our transportation system, safe,” he said. “Our primary focus is maintaining the transportation system that we have in Missouri.”

But, he noted, Missouri still has the seventh largest highway system in the nation at 33,890 miles.

“And we’re 40th in funding — that hasn’t gone away and we still have that to deal with,” Nichols explained.