Rural Missouri Magazine

Proposition B
by Jim McCarty

Anyone who has ever crossed the Highway 19 bridge at Hermann knows the routine. Take a deep breath. Keep your eyes pointed straight ahead. Don’t sneeze. Follow these rules or you might lose the mirror on the driver’s side of your vehicle.

The Highway 19 bridge is 80 years old and long overdue for replacement. It’s one of a long list of Missouri bridges that are unsafe and in need of replacement. It’s also part of an equally long list of projects promised if voters say yes to Proposition B Aug. 6.

Missouri’s General Assembly sent Proposition B to a vote of the people after several years of wrangling over the best way to remedy the state’s transportation woes. While many lawmakers had opinions on the solution, most agreed something needed to be done.

“In the legislative session when they debated this there was very little discussion about whether roads need to be replaced or not,” says Jeff Briggs, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “Everyone agrees it does. There are recent nationwide studies in which Missouri comes out on the wrong end of the spectrum. We were rated the third worst in the nation in terms of the state’s pavement conditions. We are second worst in terms of percentage of deficient bridges.”

what Proposition B does

Briggs says the state’s problem is twofold: Missouri has the nation’s seventh-largest highway system with 32,000 miles of roadway and 10,000 bridges. However the state is near the bottom of the list in terms of money to spend on road maintenance and construction.

Kansas invests more than $78,000 per mile of highway and Iowa invests almost $86,000 per mile. In contrast, Missouri spends less than $46,000 per mile on a road system that is three times the size of these neighboring states.

“Missouri ranks 43rd in the nation in its transportation revenue per mile,” Briggs says. “And it’s been this way for a long, long time. There is no way to take care of a system this size when you don’t have the funding you need.”

Of considerable concern is Missouri’s 1,100 miles of interstate highway. Missouri can claim rights to the first mile of interstate, part of I-70 in St. Charles County. Being first means we also have some of the oldest highways in the nation.

“A lot of these sections of pavement are 30 to 40 years old,” Briggs says. “They are past due to be replaced and we haven’t got the funds to do that. So we’ve gotten way behind.”

Dangerous, rough, narrow, crooked, frightening — these are all terms used to describe Missouri’s crumbling highways. Proposition B’s passage would deliver a half-billion dollar shot in the arm to fix Missouri’s roads and bridges.

If it passes, $483 million per year would be generated by raising the fuel tax from 17 cents a gallon to 21 cents and adding 1/2 cent to the state sales tax. This would cost the typical family of four $88 a year in sales tax and $30 a year in fuel tax according to MoDOT. Both taxes would expire in 10 years unless extended by voters.

Among the measure’s promises:
• 100 percent of Missouri’s interstates would be upgraded to good condition.
• 14,000 miles of secondary roads would be resurfaced.
• 700 bridges would be repaired or replaced.
• Highways 60, 36, 13 and 7 would be upgraded to four lanes.
• 100 new buses and vans would be purchased every year to meet rural transportation needs.
• Ethanol and biodiesel producers would get $6 million a year to encourage production of these alternative fuels.
• Payments to counties and cities for local road and bridge improvements would increase by more than $50 million a year.
• The number of airports capable of landing jets will increase by 25 percent.

road construction

If Proposition B passes, Hwy. 72 would be four lane from Rolla to Salem.

Rural areas are well represented in the plan. Just fixing the deficient bridges would allow heavy trucks hauling grain and milk to avoid detours. The addition of four-lane roads like Highway 36 from Macon to Hannibal and highways 7 and 13 from Springfield to Kansas City would spur economic development and tourism.

The $6 million included in the plan to boost ethanol and biodiesel production will add value to corn and soybeans. And rural public transportation needs would finally be addressed in a serious manner.

With a mission plan like that it would seem Proposition B would have few detractors. In fact, it’s hard to find any orchestrated opposition to the measure from the state’s many associations. Most are staying neutral on the measure.

The Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, whose members have a huge stake in the vote, is one group that’s not taking a position on Proposition B.

“It’s going to affect every Missourian but certainly it’s going to affect all of my members, in particular the 4-cent increase in the fuel tax,” says Ron Leone, executive vice president of the Jefferson City-based association. “I think our members understand that the future of Missouri is contingent upon a good road system. So what’s good for Missouri is good for Missouri businesses. So they want to leave it up to the people.”

Leone says his group lobbied hard to keep the fuel tax increase at 3 cents. Had that compromise been reached, he says his members might have endorsed the proposal.

He says some Missouri gas stations will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage if Proposition B passes because motorists near border states might fill up outside Missouri. This is especially true in the Bootheel where Missouri already has a fuel tax disadvantage.

Leone says trust in the Missouri Highway Commission played a role in his group’s not opposing Proposition B. “Gov. Holden appointed three new members to that commission,” Leone says. “Our members have a great deal of faith in those commissioners in particular in making sure MoDOT’s promises are kept, that the money is going to be used in the way they promise it’s going to be used.”

Accountability might decide whether Proposition B passes or not. Many voters remember the last fuel-tax increase, a 6-cents-a-gallon hike in 1992 that was supposed to fund a 15-year expansion of the system. In 1998 that plan was scrapped when the highway commission declared that costs were underestimated and the plan was severly underfunded.

Memories of that failed plan haven’t been forgotten by the Missouri Farm Bureau. While Farm Bureau is also neutral on Proposition B, its members passed a resolution calling for a change in the way highway dollars are allocated.

Their resolution calls for a return to the promises of the 15-year plan, in particular a promise to extend four-lane roadways to every Missouri town over 5,000 in population.

“We recognized that additional funding is needed in the state,” says Estil Fretwell, Farm Bureau’s director of public affairs. “But in order to gain public trust there ought to be certain steps taken to address reform measures. That’s where we believe the shortcoming is in Proposition B.”

Farm Bureau also takes issue with the diversion of funds to agencies other than MoDOT. In the past, several state agencies took a piece of the fuel-tax pie. For example, in the past the state auditor, Department of Revenue, Highway Patrol and other state agencies claimed some of the 17 cents a gallon paid at the pump.

Proposition B would limit this diversion to only the patrol and revenue. The Patrol currently gets $120 million from road taxes.

Fretwell said Farm Bureau argued for new sources of funding that didn’t come from the fuel tax for the Patrol, while acknowledging additional funds were a good idea.

“If B doesn’t pass we will continue to make this as a strong point,” Fretwell says. “We need to fund the Patrol in a way that secures their funding, increases their funding, but doesn’t cause the confusion that fuel tax funds are not being used for road construction.”

What will happen if B doesn’t pass? Briggs says MoDOT has contingency plans in place. Without the additional funding from Proposition B most new construction will cease when funding from the sale of bonds runs out in 2003. MoDOT will instead concentrate on taking care of what is already in place.

“After next year there’s almost no new construction other than finishing what’s already started,” he says. “Our funding’s going to be limited and we are going to focus on taking care of our existing system.”

Absent from future plans without Proposition B funds is money earmarked for interstate repair. MoDOT wants to pump $110 million per year into rebuilding our battered interstate system. If B fails MoDOT will return to patching.

“Really the roads need more attention than that,” Briggs says.

MoDOT will have some additional funding without Proposition B. This year the General Assembly removed the sunset provision on the 6-cent gas tax passed in 1992 that would have expired in 2008. Lawmakers also extended the jet fuel tax set to expire in 2003 for another five years.

But these measures are a drop in the bucket compared to the need, MoDOT officials say. Missouri’s voters are encouraged to study the issue and voice their opinion Aug. 6.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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