Transportation backers seek better roads, image

Sunday, June 16, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Bumpy. Rough. Narrow. Crowded. Scary. Dangerous.

Pick an adjective to describe Missouri's roads and bridges, and chances are good that the description is negative.

Now how much are you willing to pay to change that?

How about starting with an extra $150 a year in taxes for a family of four with two drivers?

Voters on Aug. 6 will be asked to raise taxes on fuel, clothes, fast food and almost all other purchases to pay for improvements to Missouri's roads, bridges and other modes of transportation.

The 4-cent motor fuel and one-half cent sales tax increases are estimated to generate between $483 million and $511 million annually -- an amount that would provide about half of what the Missouri Department of Transportation says is required to address all of the state's transportation needs.

Supporters view it as a start -- a way to begin introducing new words such as "smooth" and "safe" into the vocabulary of Missouri motorists.

"I think it's probably evident to most people in Missouri that our roads are in pretty sad shape," said Bill McKenna of Barnhart, a relatively new member of the state Highways and Transportation Commission.

With passage of the proposed tax increase, "lives will be saved, roads will be made safer," McKenna said. But "we're not going to promise more than we can do."

Legislative researchers had projected the taxes would generate $511 million during their first full year, including $384 million for state roads and bridges, $64 million for the state to use on other modes of transportation and $6 million for state ethanol and biodiesel programs. Local roads and bridges would get $57 million.

The ballot's official revenue estimate, prepared by State Auditor Claire McCaskill's office, assumes a sluggish economy without inflationary growth. It projects a total of $483 million in new tax revenues, of which $431 million would go to state purposes and $52 million to local governments.

Some skeptics note that the transportation department already has seen a 150 percent growth since 1992, when it survived on $753 million. The budget has risen largely because of more federal money, the 1992 fuel tax increase and recent highway bonds.

The transportation department growth outpaces that of Missouri government as a whole, which saw a budget increase of a little more than 100 percent since 1992.

Those figures could be used by opponents of the proposed tax increase.

Members of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association plan to decide around the first of July whether to actively oppose the tax plan or stay out of the campaign.

If given the go-ahead, executive director Ronald J. Leone said he will place placards atop fuel pumps statewide on the Fourth of July. Next to the signs would be handouts noting the growth in the state and transportation budgets -- and the fact that a 4-cent fuel tax increase is the equivalent of a 24 percent rise in taxes, Leone said.

Some gas station owners in border cities such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Joplin are worried that higher taxes could drive people to competitors across the state line.

porters of the tax plan note that Missouri's fuel taxes still would be in the middle of the pack compared to its eight neighboring states. They say the most important comparison should not be the tax rates, but the condition of the roads and public transportation services.

"Missouri has fallen way, way, way behind in providing adequate revenue for a transportation system -- it's evident in recent assessments" of roads and bridges, said Mike Right, a spokesman for AAA Missouri, based in St. Louis. "These are things the public is going to find unacceptable."

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