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New Mississippi River bridge taking shape

Two workers do some cosmetic work on the west tower of the new bridge over the Mississippi River on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Finisher Kevin Mahoney, from Caseyville, (green shirt) and laborer Eddie Knebel, from Highland, Ill. repair the area where a temporary support had been. Photo by J.B. Forbes

JEFFERSON CITY • A new task force will investigate all options when it comes to finding money to improve Missouri’s road system, the chairman of the panel said Wednesday.

Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, said the 23-member committee will spend the next six months looking at the possibility of raising the gas tax, transforming interstates into toll roads or some combination of smaller options as a way to generate revenue to maintain and upgrade roads and bridges.

“At this point, we’re not at the point of taking anything off the table,” Corlew said following the first meeting of the panel, which was formed by the Legislature this year to evaluate the current condition of the state’s transportation system and funding levels.

Missouri has the nation’s seventh-largest road system at nearly 30,000 miles, but has one of the lowest gasoline taxes at 17 cents per gallon.

Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna told members that the agency needs more revenue than the gas tax is generating to address repairs and upgrades. Of the state’s 10,000 bridges, for example, 2,000 need repair.

“Our roads are crumbling and our constituents are grumbling,” Corlew said.

The co-chairman of the committee, Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, made it clear he favors an increase in the gas tax.

“One of the basic functions of government at its core is to provide infrastructure,” said Schatz. “We cannot ignore the fact that we have not kept pace with inflation. It’s obvious to me that we have to do something.”

Schatz, who supported an unsuccessful bid to raise the gas tax by nearly 6 cents last year, said the state would still draw motorists who don’t want to pay higher rates in neighboring states.

“We have room to adjust and still be very competitive,” Schatz said.

Ronald Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, told the committee it is doubtful members will find some new untapped source of money to boost transportation funding.

“I don’t think you’re going to uncover any silver bullets,” said Leone, whose organization supports up to a 5-cent per gallon increase in the motor fuel tax.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, opposes raising taxes for roads and supports finding money within the existing state budget to pay for MoDOT’s needs.

Eigel suggested that the state could stop maintaining smaller, lesser used roads in order to avoid raising the motor fuel tax.

“I’m not a fan of taxes,” Eigel said.

McKenna suggested that finding savings within MoDOT could be tough. The number of employees at the agency has dropped to about 5,100 from 6,200 in 2010. The agency also closed and sold 124 maintenance facilities.

“That has saved about $100 million a year,” McKenna said.

It also appears toll roads may have a tough time garnering support. McKenna said Missouri no longer has a federal waiver to pursue the idea of transforming an existing interstate into a toll highway.

“We no longer have that as an option,” McKenna said.

In addition, lawmakers inserted language into the state budget that bars MoDOT from spending money on studying, planning or building toll roads.

Corlew said he hopes the committee can agree on a funding plan in order to present it to lawmakers in the 2018 legislative session. The group’s monthly meetings will be held at locations throughout the state, including an October session in St. Louis.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch