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Highway funding questions continue into next legislative session

December 11, 2000
By: Suzanne Bessette
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's new governor and legislature will be facing a $1.2 billion unanswered highway funding question when they take office in January -- thanks to Missouri's Transportation Department.

MoDOT officials have not shied away from publicizing the funding shortage expected to accompany their 20-year highway and bridge improvement plan -- $24.5 billion in total, which breaks down to roughly $1.2 billion per year.

The plan includes the I-70 improvement project, which itself bears a $3 billion price tag. While pushing what they'd like to build, department officials have been relatively silent on how to get the money.

"We feel like it's our duty as stewards of the transportation system to tell people what needs improvement in the system to bring it up to their standards," said MoDOT spokesman Shawn Barnes. "It's up to the legislature and to Missourians to determine how to fill the gap."

That leaves transportation officials and legislators alike questioning whether taxpayers will step up to fill the funding gap. In order to raise so much money, lawmakers in the past have turned to increases in gas tax -- usually letting Missouri voters make the final decision on a gasoline tax hike.

Last year, the legislature scrambled to fill the funding gap for immediate repairs of roads and bridges, instituting a $2.25 billion bond program for the next five years.

This year, it faces losing up to $35 million per year in federal funds if it refuses to pass a tougher drunk driving law that adheres to new federal standards. That bill has been pre-filed both in the House and the Senate for next term.

But even with last legislative session's willingness to spend on transportation, MoDOT Director Henry Hungerbeeler is pessimistic about getting full funding for the plan.

"I expect the voters to make some tough choices on just how much they wish to pay for," he said.

That leaves the legislature and the governor with the responsibility of deciding whether and how to propose a tax hike to the public to make up the funding gap. Opinions are divided among legislative leaders.

"I've always been for enhancing MoDOT's revenues, but I'm fully aware a fuel tax increase would not pass my committee, the Senate or a popular vote," said Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Rep. Don Koller, D-Summersville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was ambivalent about predicting the future of MoDOT's funding.

"I think there's a real good possibility of it going to the people, especially since the bonding bill passed last year," he said. "But who knows what will pass by the people of Missouri."

Reserving his opinion on future funding of MoDOT's long-range program, Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell voiced strong concerns about the accuracy of MoDOT's financial predictions.

"I'm not taking their opinion at face value," he said. "We appreciate their assessment, but we plan on visiting the financial officer for MoDOT, discussing the formula that was used to come to these figures. We will be making our own assessments in my office."

Gov.-elect Bob Holden's spokesman said Holden does not yet have a specific plan or position on the issue.

His GOP opponent, Jim Talent, made the cornerstone of his failed campaign a $10 billion bond-financing program for the next ten years. Talent argued the bonds could be financed without a tax increase.

Holden charged the plan would jeopardize the state's bond rating, but did not offer an alternative and said recently he still did not have a plan ready to unveil until he and his advisers review MoDOT's proposal and talk to the legislators.

Hungerbeeler and Staples are united in one opinion -- that without a major funding initiative, Missouri's roads and drivers will suffer. "Up until the time the people of Missouri demand a change, we're going to be living in the dark ages," Staples said.