Groups revving up for costly transportation campaign

Sunday, May 19, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- From signs atop gas pumps to billboards along roads, Missouri motorists could encounter messages at every turn this summer seeking to influence their vote on a transportation tax plan.

State lawmakers on Friday passed a $511 million proposal asking voters to pay about 40 cents more for a 10-gallon gas fill up and additional nickel for each $10 purchase in a store.

With less than three months until an Aug. 6 election, supporters and opponents of the transportation taxes are wasting little time revving up their campaigns, which are expected to be costly.

Money touting the plan will be coming from general contractors, as well as state and regional business groups -- interests most likely to benefit by the construction of new roads or the expansion of mass transit.

Opposing the ballot measure will be the gas station lobby and consumer groups upset about the affect of new taxes. The Missouri Farm Bureau, a traditionally powerful grass-roots group, also could join the opposition campaign.

Supporters alone could spend a couple million dollars on the campaign, said Duane Kraft, president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, a group consisting of 340 general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers -- most of whom work on roads.

The pitch is simple -- Missouri's roads are crumbling, congested and not safe.

"I think folks understand that the road and bridge system in this state is in pretty bad shape," Kraft said Saturday.

"Our information we have gathered over time indicates they want them fixed ... and you just can't do that without significant money."

That money would come from higher taxes.

A one-half cent sales tax increase would raise Missouri's purchasing tax to 4.725 cents on a dollar. But many cities or counties already impose a tax on top of the state's.

A proposed 4-cent fuel tax increase would raise Missouri's gas and diesel taxes to 21 cents a gallon -- higher than about half its neighbors but still slightly below others.

The state's gas and convenience store association says the increase could put Missouri at a competitive disadvantage, especially considering that several Missouri cities are located near the border.

Although plans aren't finalized, "we are considering influencing the consumer while they are filling up at the pump," said Ronald J. Leone, executive vice president of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

One approach could be using something known as a pump topper -- signs on gas pumps that typically advertise soft drinks or other items in the store.

"While people are pumping gas, they would be able to stand there and read a paragraph or two about our opposition to the fuel tax increase," Leone said.

Getting the word out

Billboards may be bigger, but motorists pass by in seconds while traveling about 70 mph, Leone said.

More powerful than a billboard may be the road itself, say supporters of the transportation plan.

"Safety is very critical," Kraft said. "If you've driven Interstate 70 in the past year, it's almost like a brawl -- there's just so many vehicles, trucks and cars that there's not enough room. And there's no shoulders on many of the state's other roads."

Missouri last raised its transportation tax in 1992.

But that plan didn't go before voters. Legislators passed a 6-cent fuel tax that was tied to a 15-year spending blueprint promising a four-lane road to every town of at least 5,000.

The state Highways and Transportation Commission abandoned the 15-year plan in 1998 after determining there was no way to do all the projects with the money it had.

The move angered many people in rural areas that had stood to benefit, especially since the commission's new five-year plan split money evenly between rural areas and the metropolitan areas of St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Missouri Farm Bureau, which supported the 1992 plan, still feels slighted. Lobbyist Estil Fretwell criticized this year's transportation plan, because it does not shift money toward rural areas and contains no specific list of the roads to be improved.

"We think the legislation approved could be described as tax-heavy and reform-light," Fretwell said Saturday. "As a result of that, it's going to be more difficult to gain voter approval."

The Farm Bureau has made no official decision about its role during the upcoming campaign, he said.

"We are not the type of organization that is flush with funds to be putting into ads," Fretwell said. "It is a kind of grass-roots support that we give to any issue, and that is what we did in 1987."

That was the last time voters considered a transportation tax. Missourians passed the 4-cent fuel tax, which was tied to projects in a 15-year plan. It was that plan which was later revised to go with the 1992 fuel tax.

Although the 2002 transportation plan proposes the state's largest tax increase, it still supplies just half the money that state transportation officials say is necessary to meet Missouri's needs.

Supporters of the tax plan want to make sure voters understand that. But they also will be trying to convince voters that this funding plan will produce plenty of tangible results.

A majority of lawmakers were convinced. And Gov. Bob Holden thinks the voters can be, too.

"We are well on the way to correcting ten years of neglect of roads and bridges," Holden said.

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