CHICAGO - The Missouri Senate has approved a measure to send a sales tax hike for fund transportation projects to the state's voters.

The proposal is smaller than one recently passed by the House.

The two houses must reconcile their differences to put a measure on the ballot.

The Senate version would ask voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment to levy a three-fourths cent sales tax for 10 years. It is projected to raise $534 million. It could be extended after the 10 years if voters approve again.

Under the legislation, the revenue would go to fund roads, bridges and could also be directed to fund railroads, ports, airport and other transportation related projects.

Legislative opposition last year was too great to win approval to place a similar measure on the ballot, but it has gained traction amid warnings from transportation officials over the state's dire funding needs.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission earlier this year adopted a 20-year construction program to meet a federal planning mandate but warned it can't really afford the plan amid dwindling funding.

The commission, which oversees the MDOT, warned that its construction budget will soon fall below the $485 million needed to keep state roads and bridges in at least their current condition.

The agency said from 2005 through 2010 its annual construction budget totaled $1.3 billion. That's dropped this year to $685 million and by 2017 it is expected to further fall to about $325 million - the lowest since 1992.

The agency blames a myriad of reasons for its lack of funding including dwindling gas tax revenue, as vehicles become more fuel efficient and people drive less. At the same time, construction costs are on the rise. The state's gas tax has long been held steady at 17 cents per gallon and there is little political will to raise it or to use tolls to fund construction.

The highways commission has exhausted it borrowing capacity. After a long absence, it returned to the ranks of frequent borrowers in 2000 to finance a five-year capital program for which the General Assembly approved $2 billion of new debt to support. Voters in 2004 then bolstered the commission's borrowing capacity by ending the diversion of some road-related taxes to the general fund.

The commission exhausted that bonding capacity to fund a $2.2 billion, five-year capital program in 2009. The commission has leveraged its federal grants but has tapped that capacity under its high internal-coverage limits.

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