Extra tax money for highways weighed by board

Saturday, June 15, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Passage of a transportation tax increase this August could triple state spending on major road projects and public transit and bring Missouri's entire interstate system into good condition over the next 10 years.

However, it wouldn't pay for the widening of Interstate 70 to three lanes across Missouri, nor would it fund light rail in Kansas City nor a major expansion of the MetroLink system in St. Louis.

Those were some of the possibilities laid out Friday before the state Highways and Transportation Commission, which is considering what projects could be accomplished with roughly $500 million more annually.

Voters are to decided Aug. 6 whether to raise the state fuel tax by 4 cents to 21 cents a gallon and the state sales tax by one-half cent to 4.725 cents on a dollar.

If approved, the taxes would take effect Jan. 1 and expire in 2012 unless renewed by voters.

Commissioners are expected to vote June 25 on a project list for state roads and bridges. Planning authorities in St. Louis and Kansas City have the final say over projects there. The legislature must appropriate money for other modes of transportation.

Transportation commissioners heard various scenarios Friday, all of which would increase road maintenance and accelerate major highway projects, including the four-laning of roads in most corners of the state.

Without passage of the Proposition B tax increase, nearly 80 percent of those major projects would not get done in the next decade, said Henry Hungerbeeler, Department of Transportation head.

All options propose to raise state funding to $57 million annually for public transit and $23 million annually for other modes of transportation. Those categories together currently receive less than $20 million annually, Hungerbeeler said.

Also accomplished under all plans would be the replacement of 700 bad bridges and the resurfacing of about two-thirds of the state's 23,000 miles of secondary roads.

Of the state's 9,000 miles of major roads, a little over one-third to one-half would be improved, depending on the option chosen by commissioners.

Two of the options -- seemingly favored by commissioners -- would specifically devote money to improving interstates. That would mark a new approach for the state, which traditionally has considered interstates along with the rest of its major roads.

"All the interstate systems are the lifeline of our state. We need to keep them in good shape," said commissioner Duane Michie of Caruthersville, Mo.

Interstates carry about 38 percent of all traffic in Missouri. About 45 percent of the pavement on Interstate 70 -- the main route between St. Louis and Kansas City -- is rated as fair or poor, said Jay Bledsoe, a system analysis engineer for the transportation department.

Because of a new law, improvements to interstates could be done in 20-25 mile stretches, instead of the previous 10 mile limits.

The list of potential major road projects includes the completion of four lanes for several highly traveled corridors, including U.S. 36 across northern Missouri, U.S. 61 in northeastern Missouri and U.S. 60 in southern Missouri.

Under the plans, some major projects would be started but not finished in 10 years, including the four-laning of U.S. 50 in central Missouri.

The project plans would leave uncommitted about 20 percent of the new highway tax money to be used on needs that might develop over time.

The plans do not change the current practice of using half of the committed funding for the St. Louis and Kansas City areas and the other half for the rest of the state.

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