On the Road Again
The concept of transportation user fees should not be controversial. It’s the same principle that applies to everyday transactions—the more of something you consume, the more you pay for it.
While people might not think of roads as something to “consume,” the same concept applies. We pay for roads through gasoline taxes, vehicle sales taxes, and license fees. However, over the past decade, we’ve “consumed” a lot more road in Missouri than we’ve paid for.
The Federal Highway Association tracks the usage of Missouri roads, measured with vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Between 2008–2018, Missouri’s VMT increased 12% while the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) budget declined by 15%. The divergence in trends can be seen in the graph below.
Federal stimulus money and bonds provided the financial buoy from 2008 to 2011, both of which were used quickly and the latter of which required repayment. Increasing maintenance costs and MoDOT’s shrinking budget has taken its toll on Missouri’s road quality; the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force described Missouri’s roads as “deteriorating.”
Other than the federal government, MoDOT’s main source of funding is the fuel tax. The fuel tax has remained at 17 cents per gallon since 1996 despite inflation reducing the real value of the tax. Moreover, the revenue that has been collected has not kept pace with the increase in road usage. Between 2008–2018, fuel tax revenue declined by 0.5 percent.
So how do we fix this?
Several other states have indexed their fuel taxes to some measure, whether that be inflation, state GDP growth, or highway construction costs. Such indexing ensures that fuel tax revenue automatically adjusts to the pace at which the rest of the economy grows, rather than being stuck at a static level.
As “consumption” of Missouri’s roads increases, the question of how to pay for needed infrastructure improvements will not disappear. The fuel tax is an effective method of funding road maintenance, and indexing it to a measure that reflects road usage or costs of upkeep could help ensure Missouri’s roads and bridges are kept in good condition.