CHICAGO— The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission has 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 Missouri Department of Transportation, 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 is hoping renewed efforts for a 1-cent sales tax increase, or some other revenue source, gain momentum as the new legislative session gets underway. Voter approval would also be needed.

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 20-year program is required by the federal government to help instruct federal transportation funding decisions. The state plan seeks to preserve the existing system, protect the safety of travelers, invest in new projects that spur economic growth and jobs, and provide more transportation choices for state residents whether it's through transit, rail, ports, or bike lanes.

"Transportation is an issue that touches everyone," Commission Chairman Joe Carmichael said in a statement. "Missourians have told us what they want, and it's more than what they have today. But the reality is that we will not be able to afford it. We'll continue to look to them for help in sharpening the vision for transportation in our state and finding ways to deal with our funding challenges."

The state first released a preliminary draft late last year and since has revised its forecast of federal funding from a flat level going forward to a possible 19% decrease amid warnings of the looming insolvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

The plan identifies more than $75 billion in "wants, needs and projects to date," but notes the availability of only $14.4 billion of funds over the next 20 years. The November draft recommended $70 billion of projects and suggested that $17 billion of funding would be available.

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 use tolls to fund construction.

A bipartisan proposal last year called for a constitutional amendment to temporarily establish a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation but it fell by the wayside. It would have raised $8 billion over 10 years with most of the new revenue going to the commission.

Similar measures have again been filed in the House and Senate. If approved, it would require voter approval. A citizens group has also launched a petition drive to get a sales tax question on the November ballot.

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.

The commission also voted this month to shift leadership roles on the board effective March 1. Commission vice-chair Stephen Miller will serve as chair for one year while Carmichael will serve as vice-chair. Such moves are common on the board.

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