MoDOT aims tax revenue for urban projects

Saturday, June 29, 2002

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

BY MARC POWERS ~ SOUTHEAST MISSOURIAN

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With a majority of Missouri's people -- and voters -- it's no surprise that the St. Louis and Kansas City areas would enjoy more road improvements than other regions if the Proposition B transportation tax package on the Aug. 6 ballot wins statewide approval.

A list of major projects finalized by state transportation officials last week to show Missourians what they would get for their money was heavily skewed toward the state's two main urban areas.

The spending plan, which doesn't specifically earmark every anticipated dollar, includes projects the Missouri Department of Transportation vows to complete by 2013, plus a few it hopes to start, but not finish, during that 10-year period.

Proposition B calls for a 4 cent fuel tax increase and a one-half cent sales tax increase to raise an estimated $483 million a year. It would cost the average family of four with two drivers $149 a year.

Projects in the two MoDOT districts that cover St. Louis and Kansas City and their surrounding counties -- which claim a combined 54 percent of the state population -- would receive about 48 percent of the money set aside for specific roads or bridges. That figure excludes those projects that wouldn't be finished by 2013. The department says that its calculated project costs are estimates for how much might be expended during the next 10 years.

The state's remaining eight road districts would divvy up the remaining 52 percent of the earmarked funds.

More Southeast miles

The Sikeston-based MoDOT district, which covers 14 Southeast Missouri counties, has more miles of state roads than any other. However, it would see the second smallest amount of spending under the plan -- $28 million for two projects, upgrades of Interstate 55 from Cape Girardeau to Scott City and Highway 412 from Kennett to Hayti. Another $103 million project -- Highway 67 improvements in St. Francois and Madison counties -- is on the list of partially funded efforts.

The Macon district, which covers 14 north-central Missouri counties, has the second highest number of state road miles but virtually no projects on the list, save for a few miles of a major highway upgrade that is largely in a neighboring district.

The Willow Springs district, which includes some Southeast Missouri counties, has one project -- a continuation of the Highway 60 expansion. However, it carries a hefty $251 million price tag.

Tom Irwin, a senior vice president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, doesn't see the plan as unfairly favoring urban areas. Transportation improvements in Missouri's population centers, he said, would benefit the entire state.

"I think the ties that people try to use to separate us are really the ties that bind us together," Irwin said. "If St. Louis is doing well, that will have a direct benefit on outstate Missouri." With the St. Louis area accounting for 38 percent of taxable sales in Missouri, the region provides more tax revenue to the state than it gets back. Improved roads in the region would help keep the state's primary economic engine strong, Irwin said.

"If this metro area begins to sink, its ability to pay not only for road projects but a whole lot of other things sinks as well," Irwin said.

While not discounting urban contributions to the state economy, Missouri Farm Bureau lobbyist Estil Fretwell said many rural Missourians are still upset with MoDOT's 1998 decision to spend half of its money on St.

Louis and Kansas City and the other half on the rest of the state.

Previously, rural Missouri, which has the bulk of the highway miles, if not the traffic, claimed 60 percent of the transportation pie.

"They took millions of dollars away from rural areas and moved it to urban areas," Fretwell said. "I think that creates a problem in selling" Proposition B.

However, transportation officials are quick to point out the Proposition B would substantially boost the money available for rehabilitating existing roads and bridges. Though spending in that area isn't project-specific, it would heavily favor rural areas.

There is no spending plan MoDOT could put out that would satisfy everyone, said Mike Right of AAA of Missouri, which is backing the measure. The rural-urban bickering, he added, ceased being productive long ago.

"If we want to continue the progress of the economy of the state of Missouri and do something about the tremendous death toll on our highways, this is our only option for the foreseeable future," Right said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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