Lawmakers say Missouri’s current gasoline tax cannot keep up with the state’s transportation infrastructure needs.

DALLAS – Voters in Missouri could decide in November whether to raise state gasoline and diesel taxes by almost 6 cents per gallon each in a statewide referendum authorized by a bill passed by the state Senate.

The House is expected to consider the bill, proposed by state Sen. Frank Libla, the Republican chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, the week April 25th. The tax hikes would generate $165 million a year for state highways and bridges and $71 million per year for local transportation projects.

The state motor fuels tax of 17 cents per gallon has not been raised since 1996. Libla's measure, Senate Bill 623, would add 5.9 cents to the fuels tax rate if voters approve the increase.

The original bill called for an increase of 1.5 cents per gallon for gasoline and 3.5 cents for diesel, but Libla amended the measure to raise both by the same amount after the state House balked at the proposed increase.

Libla said during the floor debate that the higher tax is a better way to raise the revenue needed to fund transportation infrastructure projects than public-private partnerships.

"There has been a lot of can-kicking and rhetoric over the last year about how to address the serious shortfall in our highway and bridge funding needs," Libla said. "It is this simple: Since 1924, the motor fuel user tax is the way we invested in our highways. Period."

State Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Libla's proposed tax hike is reasonable.

"I'm definitely supportive of a gas tax increase," he said. "It's going to bring in much needed money so we are able to match our federal funds coming in."

Republicans hold 118 of 165 seats in the state House and 25 of the 34 seats in the Senate.

The gasoline tax is the fairest way to fund transportation, said House minority leader Jacob Hummel, a Democrat from St. Louis.

"The people that use the gas are the people that use the roads," he said. "That's how we should fund the roads and transportation in the state."

Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, told lawmakers in January that Missouri has barely enough money for upkeep on the 34,000 miles of highway and the 10,400 bridges in the road system.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission may ease MoDOT's cash crunch by holding onto $10 million per year of its federal highway funds that it had been voluntarily diverting to cities and counties.

The commissioners earlier this month directed MoDOT to make multiyear financial plans that assume the funding will be retained rather shared with the local governments. A final decision is expected in May.

The transportation funding problems faced by Missouri and other states is due in part to the modest increases in core highway and transit programs provided by the five-year federal funding measure that became law in early December, said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"Congress has mainly pushed infrastructure expenses back to state governments," he said.

While the $305 billion Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was an improvement from previous funding levels, Wright said it was not enough to allow states to eliminate large backlogs of needed infrastructure projects.

"We are already seeing record-high traffic volumes, and the population and freight traffic will only keep growing," Wright said. "States are having to make hard decisions on how much to invest in their transportation networks without much more help at the federal level, even though the integrated highway system is a national economic asset."

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