MoDOT director talks funding, business implications after gas tax failure

The Missouri Department of Transportation is struggling to maintain the state’s road and bridge infrastructure, according to MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna, and further deterioration of the state’s 33,000 miles of highways and 10,600 bridges could have serious negative consequences.

On Thursday, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce hosted McKenna for a talk about the future of Missouri’s transportation infrastructure after voters rejected Proposition D in November.

The measure would have increased the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon over four years. Ballot language said it would generate $288 million per year in funding for state law enforcement and $123 million annually for local governments’ road maintenance needs.

“That’s the one common denominator we all have, we all have to get somewhere,” Columbia Chamber President Patrick McCormick said Thursday. “We all have goods and products to move, and so it really affects everyone and not just one industry over the other.”

Joe Henderson, co-chair of the Columbia Chamber’s Legislative Affairs Committee and president of Central Bank of Boone County, said he was “very disappointed” with the failure of Proposition D.

“I believe we could have done a better job of explaining the deficiencies in the system,” Henderson said.

McCormick said he has heard that “confusing language” could have contributed to the proposition’s failure. He also said voter turnout and a ballot packed with other prominent issues and candidates could have contributed to the fate of the fuel tax increase.

Agriculture feeling effects

McKenna pointed to agriculture as one industry likely to be adversely affected by lack of funding for the state’s roads and bridges.

“Some of the roads in rural Missouri don’t actually meet the needs of current agriculture,” he said.

Agriculture contributes $88.4 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, and millions of tons of products are shipped via plane, truck, barge and rail line. Failure to maintain the state’s highways could have significant negative impacts on farmers’ ability to move the products from the farm to customers, McKenna said.

Pressing projects

McKenna cited a recent case in which funding almost fell through for the replacement of the Champ Clark Bridge, which connects Missouri to Illinois across the Mississippi River about 90 miles north of St. Louis. The project came within 30 days of losing essential federal grant money.

“If we lost that $10 million grant, we would not be replacing that bridge,” McKenna said. “That’s how tight it is.”

The loss of the Champ Clark Bridge would have forced a 77-mile detour to safely cross the Mississippi River, McKenna said.

“The number of poor bridges in Missouri is rising steadily as we struggle to hold our own,” according to MoODOT. There are 10,600 bridges in Missouri. Currently 922, or about 9 percent, are rated “poor” — the lowest Federal Highway Administration rating for structural integrity that an active bridge can have.

Another bridge that desperately needs replacement, McKenna said, is the Missouri River Bridge, which brings Interstate 70 across the river near Rocheport.

According to McKenna, the bridge needs to be replaced, but MoDOT does not have the funds. MoDOT can fix the bridge, but rehabilitation would cause “significant backups” due to lane closings that could take three to eight hours to get through.

The road ahead

As for MoDOT’s next steps, McKenna is hoping that federal funding will be Missouri’s saving grace. Right now, McKenna said, his department is making two plans: one that benefits from federal money and one that doesn’t.

MoDOT will be forced to act quickly. “We only have through 2020 with the existing (Federal Transportation Authorization) if Congress doesn’t act,” McKenna said.

Without Congress stepping in, federal funding will significantly decline as early as 2021. Projects will not even be started, and the ability for Missourians to do business will be greatly affected, McCormick said.

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