DALLAS – Missouri's transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate unless lawmakers provide additional funds to rebuild or replace aging roads and bridges, the state's highway chief warned state lawmakers at a joint legislative hearing.
The state has hundreds of miles of interstate highway built in the 1950s and more than 6,000 bridges that already are older than their expected 50-year service life, said Patrick McKenna, who was appointed director of the Missouri Department of Transportation in November.
Missouri has barely enough money for upkeep on the 34,000 miles of highway and the 10,400 bridges in the road system, he said.
"Any additional state revenue is critical," McKenna told members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight on Tuesday.
"It is not acceptable just to maintain our system as it is," McKenna said. "It is critical to build a 21st century transportation system today in order to fuel our economy and retain our workforce."
Over the next few years, much of the existing infrastructure will have to be replaced, he said.
"We'll be facing a virtual tidal wave of replacement needs as we go forward," McKenna said. "So getting further behind, or just treading water, is simply not good enough."
Neighboring states that have increased their gasoline taxes in recent years have a competitive advantage in attracting new industries, he said.
"We have to be cognizant of the fact that when these other states are raising their gas tax, they're investing at a rate that's greater than the rate in Missouri," McKenna said. "We have to be really careful that we don't get behind in terms of that investment because businesses and people notice. They locate where they can move around efficiently and effectively."
McKenna asked lawmakers to consider an increase in the state fuel tax, which has been at 17 cents per gallon of gasoline and diesel since 1996.
"We're not getting the same dollar value out of our construction that we could then," he said. "Commodities have gone up. The cost of construction has gone up. Asphalt, steel and concrete have gone up."
The state Senate Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety unanimously approved a bill (SB 623) last week that would raise the state's fuel tax to 18.5 cents per gallon of gasoline and 20.5 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.
The bill is now in the state House, whose leaders do not support the tax increase.
"We believe, in the House, that we ought to try to hold the line on taxes and live within our means," House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff, told reporters last week.
Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is in favor of a gasoline tax increase. Republicans control the General Assembly, with 24 of the 34 state senators and 117 of the 145 state representatives.
State Sen. Doug Libla, the Republican chairman of the transportation committee, is the chief sponsor of the bill to increase the fuel tax. He said the measure would generate an additional $80 million per year, with $56 million dedicated to state highway projects and $24 million distributed to local and county road work.
"It's not a new idea. It's a user tax," Libla said. "Since 1924, this is how Missouri voters have said they want to fund roads and bridges. Detractors never have a plan."
Missouri voters in November 2014 rejected a state sales tax increase that would have generated $5 billion of revenues dedicated to transportation projects. A bill to raise the fuel tax died in the final days of the 2015 legislative session.