The End of the Road for Scenic Missouri?
Missouri has some breathtaking scenery. Whether it’s the Gateway Arch or the Missouri River Bluffs or the cotton farms in boot heel, the state is dressed to impress. With the scenery rightfully grabbing all the attention, perhaps we can be forgiven, as we drive around the state, for ignoring what’s right in front of us—and under us: the highways.
And while they might not seem like much, Missouri’s highways are something to be proud of, too. Even though we have one of the largest highway systems in the country, the vast majority of those roads, from I-44 to US 36 to Route ZZ, are in great condition. They get us to work, get goods to us, and allow us to enjoy virtually every corner of the state.
While there is no threat to Missouri’s natural beauty, the same cannot be said of the condition of the state highways. The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which funds our state highways, is in serious financial trouble. Whether or not the state can continue to maintain the highway system is an open question. Even worse, there is no money for major improvements like rebuilding I-70 or replacing our many aging bridges.
The prime reason for this is that the largest source of funding for highways, a 17 cent fuel tax, has brought in less and less money over the years. Part of that can be blamed on inflation; part of it is the result of more fuel-efficient vehicles. And no doubt, MoDOT—like any government organization—could have made more prudent spending decisions in decades past.
The most important question now is not how Missouri has gotten into this mess, but how we’re going to out of it. Not long ago, state policymakers backed a statewide sales tax to pay for highways. Bad idea. Why should Missouri’s shoppers pay as much as—or more than—trucks just passing through the state for improved roads? It’s not fair to those who choose to drive less, and it’s not good economic policy to subsidize driving. Missouri voters did the right thing when they overwhelmingly rejected the new tax.
Fortunately, Missouri has a better option: have drivers pay for the highways. Since the inception of the state highway system, it has relied on user fees for funds. There is no reason to abandon that principle now. A small increase in the fuel tax—a few cents per gallon—could prevent MoDOT from running out of money. Many policymakers agree. The governor has come out in favor of a fuel tax increase, and multiple legislators have pre-filed bills that would enact such an increase. For example, one proposal would increase the state’s per-gallon tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents and on regular fuel by 1.5 cents.
Higher fuel taxes are not the only solution. MoDOT is looking at tolling I-70, which could provide the funds to construct a modern highway, paid for by those who benefit from it most. Another proposal would allow the state to hand over control of smaller highways to counties and cities in return for additional local transportation funding from MoDOT. Giving local governments the responsibility for maintaining what are for practical purposes local roads, as is done in other states, could allow MoDOT to better focus its resources.
Missouri can’t let its highway system fall into a state of disrepair, but it can fix the system’s user funding base. If Missouri can do that, both residents and visitors alike will be able to enjoy the view with full confidence that the road is good shape and that they are helping to pay for it.