ST. LOUIS • The region’s top leaders are scrambling to pull together a transportation spending wish list in time for voters to see specifics before deciding on a statewide sales tax increase in August.
In the wake of Gov. Jay Nixon’s surprise move to place a transportation sales tax increase on the Aug. 5 ballot — instead of November — the Missouri Department of Transportation is seeking a tentative list of spending priorities by mid-June from agencies around the state.
The ballot measure would raise the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent.
Members of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which comprises top elected leaders, ordered its staff on Wednesday to pull a list together quickly.
“The dilemma we’re faced with is that MoDOT is running out of money,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said after the meeting. “It’s important that we have this infrastructure to help retain and attract jobs.”
Slay told council members that if the measure fails, it might be several years before another could be put before the voters.
Peter Koeppel, a long-range transportation planner for East-West Gateway, said the St. Louis region would receive about $1.49 billion of the $4.3 billion MoDOT would distribute through regional agencies over the tax’s 10-year life.
Altogether, the measure would be expected to generate about $534 million a year for local and state highways, bridges and public transportation.
The state sales tax is 4.225 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Revenue website.
Greg Horn, MoDOT’s district engineer in St. Louis, said some of the projects are already contained in long-range planning documents.
“We really need your help to get this list right to go out to voters in August,” he told the panel.
East-West Gateway is expected to make recommendations at its next meeting. The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission will then create a statewide priority list before the election.
Slay said the governor’s decision to call for the vote in August instead of November “makes it more difficult because there is less time to prepare and educate, and that’s part of what the issue is here.” It has been 22 years since Missouri last taxed itself to support transportation needs, he said.
Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller noted that the statewide measure will now appear on the same ballot as a “vital” $10 million tax proposal in his county. He said that proposal was placed on the August ballot with the understanding that the state vote was headed for November.
St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie said Wednesday that warnings of a transportation funding crisis were manufactured. He suggested that MoDOT and supporters of a sales tax are focusing too much on expanding highways and not enough on alternative transportation.
“If this passes, this will determine the transportation and land-use pattern in St. Louis for the next two decades,” Ogilvie said after the meeting. “Are we building a transportation system for the future?”
Surveys, he said, have shown that the public supports a heavier emphasis on mass transit, and bike and pedestrian access and safety. He said people are driving less and have been for nine years.
Ogilvie said he believes the evolving transportation priorities will be weighted heavily toward highway expansion.
But Slay emphasized that a sales tax would provide greater flexibility for alternative transportation forms than the gasoline tax, which is largely limited to highways and bridges.
“It is a tax increase,” he said. “But it is something that is very much needed for the region.”