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Interstate 70

Morning commuters travel on Interstate 70 just west of Highway 370 in this 2011 file image. Photo by Dawn Majors of the Post-Dispatch

Missouri voters’ rejection of a gasoline tax increase last week leaves state officials scrambling again for a successful route to solving the Missouri Department of Transportation’s chronic money problems.

The measure, Proposition D, was defeated by a vote of about 54 percent to 46 percent. The gradual 10-cent-a-gallon hike carried only in St. Louis city, three metro Kansas City counties and four outstate.

Rejection by voters in St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties came despite bipartisan support from the top elected leaders in each one.

They joined Republican Gov. Mike Parson, Democratic Mayor Lyda Krewson and a long list of business and labor groups on the campaign.

The loss followed the defeat in 2014 of a statewide sales tax hike for transportation also put before voters by the Legislature. More than 59 percent voted against that proposal.

“I am sitting here kind of dumbfounded as to what do we do next” to deal with road and bridge funding needs, said state Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, a key player in crafting the defeated measure.

But Schatz, who will likely take over as Senate president pro tem when the Legislature reconvenes in January, said he and other state leaders intend to make transportation funding a priority next session — seeing it as a key to economic growth.

He said he is meeting with Parson, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, the incoming Missouri House leadership and MoDOT officials to try to come up with a proposal to the Legislature to address at least some of the estimated $825 million a year in unfunded road and bridge needs.

Kehoe said the same.

“I believe most Missourians feel we do have a shortage in funding for the highways,” Kehoe said. “We just haven’t been able to coalesce around the solution.”

The two, in separate interviews, said at this point they weren’t pushing any particular ideas.

And it’s unclear now if another ballot proposal would emerge or if the Legislature could be asked to simply pass a more limited revenue infusion itself.

Under the state’s Hancock Amendment, tax and fee hikes raising revenue below a certain level — about $101 million last year, according to a report from the state auditor’s office — don’t have to go before voters. Schatz said the allowable level is now more in the $80 million range.

Some lawmakers interviewed said increasing various license and registration fees might be one possibility to raise some revenue for MoDOT.

Another fix conceivably could have the Legislature itself raise the gas tax incrementally (2 cents for one year would raise about $80 million) without putting it before voters.

But many lawmakers probably would be loath to do that so soon after Tuesday’s rejection at the ballot box. ”You have to respect the voters,” said Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, who supported Prop D.

Another idea, said Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, might be assigning to road projects some of a big increase in state revenue considered likely to occur following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that widened the reach of state taxes on online purchases.

Giving MoDOT a cut from taxes if Missouri legalizes sports betting also could be looked at, another legislator speculated.

Corlew, who lost his own re-election bid last week, had chaired a bipartisan transportation task force which held hearings across Missouri last year and studied the funding issue in depth.

The panel, which Schatz served as vice chairman, concluded that a gas tax hike was the best idea for the immediate future. That’s in part because it’s a user fee and paid by both Missourians and out-of-staters passing through on state roads.

Schatz said it’s possible that lawmakers might at some point consider a system in which motorists paid a fee based on vehicle miles driven, not on gasoline purchases.

The task force report said that would be in response to increased use of electric or hybrid vehicles and could either be in addition or in lieu of a gas tax.

Meanwhile, Kehoe and Schatz said they oppose toll roads, an idea that’s been raised on and off for decades — especially for rebuilding and widening Interstate 70 between the outer edges of metro St. Louis and the Kansas City area.

Kehoe said 60 percent of the state’s population lives within 30 miles north or south of I-70 and “before you get to the letter L in toll, they start freaking out.” Moreover, the Legislature last year went on record against the idea.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who opposed Prop D, said a majority of voters simply didn’t believe raising taxes was needed to address MoDOT’s funding issues.

The convoluted wording of the proposition, which didn’t refer to legislators’ plans to channel most of the added money to MoDOT, could have been a factor as well.

Eigel suggested that the Legislature consider shifting to roads some other existing state revenue, arguing that this is “a prioritization problem” and not “a money problem.”

He also said the Legislature should discuss “what is the right size and scope” of the state road system. That was an apparent reference to proposals to shift some smaller lettered state roads to county responsibility.

But Corlew said that wouldn’t save much. Under a state ban on unfunded mandates, he noted, the state would have to send counties money to cover their extra road costs. He added that counties would lose “economies of scale” achieved when MoDOT maintains those roads statewide.

Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.