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Gasoline at U.S. Pumps Seen Surging to 6-Year Seasonal High

A customer prepares to fuel her vehicle at a Road Ranger gas station in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Gasoline in the U.S. climbed this week, boosted by a surge in oil, and is expected to reach the highest level for this time of year since 2008. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Missouri lawmakers are set to revive next month the debate about raising the state gas tax, including a proposal to turn over control of some highways to local counties.

The state’s 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hasn’t been raised since 1996 and is among the nation’s lowest.

A measure to increase that tax by 2 cents a gallon died in this year’s session. It was far from the cure-all funding solution, but supporters campaigned hard as the Missouri Department of Transportation grapples with funding shortfalls.

About 63 cents of every dollar MoDOT receives comes from state and federal fuel taxes, and MoDOT expects a $10 million drop in gas-tax receipts in the coming five years as drivers choose more fuel-efficient vehicles or seek other transportation, according to its most recent statewide transportation report.

Raising the gas tax is among Gov. Jay Nixon’s priorities for this legislative session, and four legislators have pre-filed bills for the upcoming session to boost Missouri’s gas tax, including a senator who’s making a second stab at getting an increase passed and another from a senator who blocked that effort.

But the Missouri House speaker signaled that getting an gas-tax increase to pass was unlikely, saying the focus of the House would be finding ways to prioritize transportation funds already in place.

“If we’re going to solve the transportation problem, it’s going to require us to recognize that we have a short-term and a long-term funding challenge,” said Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “I don’t think the House is sold on a particular approach other than I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to pass a tax increase of any kind through the House.”

Senators Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, and Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, each filed bills that would raise the gas tax by 1.5 cents, to 18.8 cents per gallon from the current 17.3 cents.

Libla led the unsuccessful push for a 2-cent-per-gallon increase this year, and his new bill would have a tax increase take effect Oct. 1.

“We have a serious problem in this state with the age of bridges and bridges needing to be replaced, and being past the useful cycle they were built for,” Libla said.

Roughly 600 bridges statewide are in critical condition, and a few statewide already have been shut down indefinitely because MoDOT lacks the money to make the fixes.

Thanks to a windfall from better-than-expected state revenue paired with federal money, the agency said it could repair or replace about 40 bridges starting as soon as next summer.

And although Steve Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, heralded the passage of a federal highway bill in a recent online post, he warned that MoDOT’s funding problems were not cured.

“The recent developments at the federal level do not change the need for $160 million annually in new state revenues,” he said.

The bill filed by Schaaf, who filibustered Libla’s bill this spring, not only proposes an increase, but would return all the lettered state routes over to counties, which would get some of the money brought in by the increased tax for maintaining the roads.

“This would be a structural change that would put the majority of miles on the transportation system back to the counties, which is the way it is in most other states and would shrink the size of our state transportation system,” Schaaf said.

His measure would require voter approval, but he said it was unlikely to pass out of the legislature because of pushback from counties that won’t be keen on footing the bill for additional road maintenance within their borders.

Voters rejected last year a sales tax increase that would have provided about $5.4 billion over 10 years for roads and bridges as well as ports, railways and public transit.

Another proposal also requires voter approval. A bill submitted by Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, would raise the state tax to 24 cents per gallon — the biggest jump proposed thus far and one that is likely to be a hard sell to conservative lawmakers. Such an increase would put Missouri in the middle range nationally and raise money needed for vital road work, she said.

Because of funding shortfalls, MoDOT is focusing its construction and maintenance budget on maintaining 8,000 miles of primary roads such as interstates. The remaining 26,000 miles of roads will see limited routine maintenance. Snow will be plowed, potholes will be filled and traffic signals will be kept running, but little else will be done.

Those roads include Lindbergh Boulevard, Gravois Road, Olive Street/Clarkson Road, and Highways 94, K and 109.

“That’s unacceptable, and I think people want their roads to be in good repair,” McNeil said.

The bill filed by Rep. Keith English, an independent from Florissant, proposes a 2-cent increase, which he says isn’t enough. It’s his hope that people would see the projects that could result from that funding, and thus support future gas-tax increases in the coming years.

“Small bites in this world is a lot better than a big chunk,” he said.

If Missouri were to increase its tax, it would join a growing list of states doing the same.

Eight states this year — Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington — passed legislation raising their gas taxes, as did nine other states over the previous two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Staff writer Kurt Erickson contributed to this report.

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Leah Thorsen is a regional reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Email her at lthorsen@post-dispatch.com and follow her on Twitter: @leahthorsen