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Missouri license plate

Missouri's "bluebird" license plate design is being replaced by a bicentennial design.

Owners of fuel-efficient vehicles could pay higher vehicle registration fees than those who own gas guzzlers under a potential change being studied by Missouri state officials.

An overhaul in the fees, paid annually or biennially to get new license plate stickers, isn’t imminent.

But the Missouri Department of Transportation is looking into the feasibility of adopting such a system to replace the current fee structure based on vehicles’ horsepower.

Improved fuel economy is a positive thing for society, both from consumer pocketbook and environmental standpoints, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.

However, he said, “it does erode the primary basis of revenue” for road maintenance and construction — the gasoline tax.

“It’s a policy quandary across the country,” he said at the Governor’s Economic Development Conference Thursday in downtown St. Louis.

“If we do move more rapidly to electric vehicles, that’s going to make this issue even more substantial.”

He put it this way to those in the audience: If you’re getting 20 miles per gallon with your vehicle and I buy a car getting 40 miles per gallon, I’ll be paying half the gas tax you are, given the same distance driven.

“Maybe there’s a way ... to balance that out,” he said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said Oregon earlier this year became the first state to link vehicle registration fees to fuel economy.

Beginning next year, Oregon owners of vehicles getting up to 19 mpg will pay an $18 annual fee. That will jump to $23 for 20 to 39 mpg vehicles, $33 for those getting 40 or more mpg and $110 for certain plug-in electric vehicles.

Missouri now has seven tiers of fees, ranging from $18.25 a year for under 12 taxable horsepower to $51.25 for above 72 horsepower.

To fund the study, MoDOT got a $250,000 federal grant — a small part of $14.2 million in grants awarded last year to states to look into new transportation revenue ideas.

McKenna emphasized that any registration fee change wouldn’t address most of Missouri’s ongoing transportation funding shortfall and is only designed to offset gas tax revenue declines in future years. It’s just a piece of the overall funding puzzle, he said.

He added that the study is looking at various aspects of a mpg-based registration fee.

“We want to have something that’s equitable so it doesn’t hit, let’s say, people that are commuting in (to a city) from further out more than others,” he said.

He said he hopes some data from the study will be available before a 23-member task force studying transportation funding options concludes its work before the 2018 legislative session that begins in January.

The Legislature must approve any change in the registration fee system.

Kevin Pula, a policy specialist with the national legislative conference, said Missouri is the last state to base its fees on horsepower. “If the intent of transportation funding is to capture some or all of the costs of using the infrastructure and roadways, basing those fees off of power is not an accurate proxy of use or damage caused,” he said in an email.

The task force, made up of legislators and others, is looking at raising the gas tax and various other ideas to generate more revenue. Many such proposals would require voter approval.

Also looking into the funding issue is a Missouri House policy committee.

Its chairman, Rep. Jeff Messenger, a Springfield-area Republican, said among the ideas his panel is looking at is tying gas tax and registration and title fee increases to increases in the cost of living since the last raises. Increases in future years would be indexed the same way.

Another idea, he said at the governor’s conference, is imposing tolls on drivers at entrances to the state — as an alternative to tolling much of Interstate 70 in the state as MoDOT has studied in the past.

“The whole idea is to capture (fees from) people traveling through our state that use our roads that don’t pay anything” now, Messenger said in an interview.

However, McKenna said tolling only at entrances to the state would violate the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause.

Another Loop Trolley delay

Officials with the oft-delayed Loop Trolley development have again pushed back their projected opening date — this time to mid-November.

Joe Edwards, who chairs the trolley district, said consultants working on the project say they now believe it will take that long to finish testing of the system and get necessary approvals from federal and state agencies.

Trolley planners initially had expected to open at the end of last year. Since then, the estimated start date has been changed several times. In early August, Edwards was hoping for a start in mid-to-late October.

Edwards said Friday that tentative plans now call for starting the 2.2-mile line with two of the trolley’s three cars. Refurbishing of the third won’t be done by mid-November, he said.