MoDOT director: Tax increase needed to maintain state's roads

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Missouri's top transportation official told Cape Girardeau business leaders Friday to expect higher taxes to cover the cost of maintaining Missouri's roads.

But local state and federal elected officials say there are other cost-saving options that should be considered.

"No one wants to stand up and say we want to increase the tax, but we are going to have to increase the tax, whether it is fuel taxes, license fees or a sales tax," said Kevin Keith, who was appointed director of the Missouri Department of Transportation in November.

He spoke at the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Coffee at the Show Me Center.

The push to manufacture more fuel-efficient cars is driving down gas tax revenue, where most of the funding for transportation comes from, Keith said.

In addition, federal funding for highways is uncertain because for the last two years Congress has not passed a highway bill.

"I've been advocating for two full years for a federal highway authorization bill that will identify the infrastructure needs in our state and provide funds for good transportation projects," Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said in a phone interview. "Especially in rural areas, commerce and economic growth depend on reliable roads. I think a federal highway bill ought to be a priority of this Congress, and I will be a leading advocate for completion of this bill in the next year."

Thanks in part to federal stimulus funds, MoDOT spent about $1.3 billion annually on infrastructure projects for the past few years, but this year will spend between $500 million and $600 million, according to Keith.

With stimulus funds gone and federal funding uncertain, MoDOT also isn't able to use its revenue from Amendment 3 for road projects. Amendment 3, adopted in 2004, directed all motor vehicle sales tax revenue to go to MoDOT. Those funds are now being use to pay off bonds, Keith said.

"We will use the money we have to the best of our ability to take care of the roads we have and keep citizens safe," he said. "If we spent every dollar we had, our roads would still be in bad shape. We don't want to go backward."

State Sen. Jason Crowell says by becoming a "right to work" state, Missouri would see a fourfold savings in the costs for road construction projects. "Right to work" laws guarantee that no person can be compelled to join or pay dues to a labor union as a condition of employment.

Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa and Kansas are among the 23 "right to work" states in the U.S., Crowell said.

"Not only do I disagree with the call for new taxes, I'd hope he [Keith] would embrace prevailing wage law reform and right to work," Crowell said after the meeting. "He's trying to make decisions in the framework that exists now; what I'm trying to do is change the framework."

Crowell also introduced a proposal last year that would create a state investment board merging MoDOT's retirement system with the Missouri State Employees Retirement System for investment purposes.

"If we would allow MoDOT to get the same return on pension funds that MOSERS is getting, it's projected we would give MoDOT $330 million over the next 10 years," Crowell said.

Over the next year Keith said he'll be working to make the case to Missourians and Americans that they need to invest more in infrastructure.

MODOT, like many other organizations in this economy, is reducing its staff and trimming expenses, Keith said.

"We're going to mow the grass less, we're not building any new MoDOT facilities, we're looking at what facilities we can consolidate. We're not putting up as many signs, we're not buying computers," he said.

MoDOT is in the process of cutting its 6,000 employee staff by 10 percent through attrition, Keith added.


Pertinent address:

1333 N. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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