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Woman waits for gas pump in St. Louis

FILE PHOTO: Bonnie L. Edwards from St. Louis waits for her gas to finish pumping at a BP gas station at the intersection of North Grand and Page Boulevards on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, in St. Louis. Post-Dispatch photo

The push for a 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax died in the Legislature, and now the Missouri Department of Transportation must grapple with what’s next.

The hike was far from the panacea sought for paying for road projects, but local leaders campaigned hard for a measure they saw as better than nothing.

So a belt-tightening looms, and nowhere is that more clear than in MoDOT’s draft version of its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, which covers plans for fiscal years 2016 to 2020.

It’s a similar story across the river. The Illinois Department of Transportation released its plan this month, saying it faces “significant budgetary challenges and will struggle to provide a high-quality highway and bridge network in coming years.”

The Missouri report is more blunt: Spending will be focused on maintenance, with little room for anything else.

Without any growth in state revenues, Missouri will not be able to match available federal transportation funds by fiscal year 2017. Missouri can match $1 of state funds with $4 of federal funds.

MoDOT has reduced its workforce by 20 percent, disposed of more than 750 pieces of equipment and sold 124 facilities since 2011 for savings of more than $605 million, the report says.

“We can’t shrink down anymore,” said Greg Horn, a MoDOT district engineer for the St. Louis region. “If we do, we won’t have staff to plow snow and do the basic things we need to do.”

About 63 cents of every dollar MoDOT receives comes from fuel taxes, and MoDOT expects a $10 million drop in fuel-tax receipts as drivers choose more fuel-efficient vehicles or seek other transportation.

The state’s 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hasn’t been raised since 1996 and is among the nation’s lowest. The 18.4-cent federal tax on gas — 24.4 cents for diesel — hasn’t been raised since 1993.

“With the cost of concrete tripled, steel prices doubled and asphalt costing more than twice what it did 20 years ago, this means Missouri is trying to fund its current transportation needs with a budget that is almost two decades out of date,” the report says.

MoDOT estimates that $885 million of federal reimbursements in fiscal year 2016 will drop to $491 million in fiscal year 2020 due to declining construction because of “insufficient state revenues.”

By 2018, the state could lose $400 million in federal funds, even though Missourians will still be paying federal gas taxes that won’t fund Missouri projects.

“We’re going to be subsidizing other states’ highways and bridges, and that bothers me the most,” Horn said.

In previous statewide transportation reports, contractor awards averaged $1.2 billion with about 50 percent to care for the system. In this report, contractor awards are $382 million with 85 percent for system care, a number expected to drop to $325 million.

“It will take all $325 million to keep the primary routes in their current condition,” the report says. “MoDOT will only do limited routine maintenance on supplementary roads, which means their condition will deteriorate.”

MoDOT approved this year “Missouri’s 325 System,” in which the state will use that $325 million to maintain 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.

Gwen Moore, who founded Alliance for Rational Transportation in Missouri, called the 325 plan anti-urban and a “blatant form of civil rights discrimination” in a letter last month to the federal Department of Transportation.

“It will harm the state,” she said. “It will harm everyone by misdirecting our funds.”

Moore, who lives in University City, argued urban streets and bridges that are part of the national highway system will not get any construction funding under the plan, but that less-used rural roads and bridges that are not part of the system will. She also said MoDOT funding is unfairly skewed toward rural areas.

“It’s not about how much traffic there is, it’s about interconnecting our cities,” Horn said of the system priorities. He said that if a portion of Lindbergh had to close, drivers can find other routes.

In more rural areas, other options don’t always exist, he said.

Gov. Jay Nixon has called on legislators to consider an increase in the fuel tax to maintain roads and tolls on I-70.

“You can expect those same calls and support for similar specific proposals from the governor to continue,” said his spokesman, Scott Holste.

A comment period for the MoDOT report ends June 5. Comments can be made online, by calling 1-888-ASK-MODOT, by email to STIPcomments@modot.mo.gov or by sending a letter to Transportation Planning Program Comments, P.O. Box 270, Jefferson City, Mo. 65102. Comments will be presented to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission before considering the final plan, slated to be approved at a meeting July 1.

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