What I Saw at the 2016 Missouri Transportation Conference
Last week, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce held its annual transportation conference in Jefferson City. Missouri state and national representatives, department of transportation officials, and private sector spokespersons were in attendance to talk about the future of Missouri’s transportation infrastructure. While topics varied, this year (as in previous years) the focus was on funding the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the state highway system.
Hopes are high that this year the legislature will take concrete action on MoDOT funding. Speakers talked about how SB 623, which would increase the state’s fuel tax (1.5 cents regular and 3.5 cents diesel) had already been voted unanimously out of committee. The dire predictions of the last two years, namely that MoDOT would fail to maintain the highway system in its present condition, took a back seat to new discussion on how MoDOT might rebuild I-70 and whether MoDOT might bring back its cost-share program to help local transportation initiatives.
With I-70, most speakers emphasized the fact that Missouri has one of a few slots in a federal pilot program that allows tolling on existing interstate highways. But with passage of the FAST Act, Missouri now has a limited time (22 months) to “use it [the slot] or lose it,” meaning the slot could be taken away and given to another state. A representative of Macquarie Infrastructure Corporation, an international infrastructure investment group, discussed how public-private partnerships could be an option for major infrastructure financing and operation. Macquarie’s most famous (or infamous) acquisition is the Indiana Toll Road, which, following its privatization promptly went bankrupt. The Macquarie representative pointed out how the transfer of toll road traffic risk to private investors greatly benefited Indiana residents, which we’ve written about before.
The general focus on the fuel tax and tolling, both user fees, as solutions for MoDOT’s funding problems, is a welcome change from a just two years ago. At that time both options were barely mentioned as officials drove for a transportation sales tax. But there were exceptions to this salutary trend. A representative of the state’s gas station lobbying group discussed a plan to fund highways with increased cigarette taxes. There seems to be no logical connection between smoking and highway maintenance expenses. When questioned why smokers should be targeted for road funding, the representative responded that the tax was likely to go up anyway and that roads were a good place to spend money. We would point out that there is no reason why cigarette taxes must increase. In addition, one could imagine fairer ways to spend any such money (like, say, health care or addiction treatment).
Funding talk was only part of the conference, and we will discuss some of the other topics, such as ridesharing, port development, and highway safety, in future writing.