Missouri lawmaker on bridge funding plan: We’ve maxed out the MoDOT credit card

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Lawmakers from both parties agree that bridges need fixing across Missouri. However, opinions quickly diverge on how to pay for it.

Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, presented his chamber’s plans to the House Budget Committee. The Senate version of a transportation funding plan borrows $301 million in bonds and uses an unspecified amount of money from general revenue to finance the bonds for bridge repair and replacement. The plan is contingent on getting a specific federal (INFRA) grant for up to $172 million dollars to replace the I-70 Missouri River bridge near Rocheport, which has been downgraded to poor condition.

The bridge is a major connector for cross country trucking and travel across the U.S.

Since voters rejected a statewide proposition to fund roads and bridges through a gas tax, legislators have struggled with a funding solution to maintain the nation’s seventh largest state highway systems, yet the nation’s 48th nationally in revenue per mile.

Sen. Schatz says only the “critical nature of this bridge,” makes him support bonding and using general revenue. Gov. Mike Parson introduced bonding for bridge repair in his January State of the State address.

“The right thing to do for transportation, that we’ve done for 95 years, is to do a good motor fuel tax,” Schatz told the House panel. “Either the Legislature is going to have the political courage to increase the fuel tax or we’re going to have to sell that message to the constituents that we represent in order to address that because 30 to 40 cents of every dollar that we collect comes from people who do not live in Missouri and I do not think general revenue, long-term, all Missouri residents shouldn’t be paying for the full fare.”

And MoDOT is tapped out and working from borrowed money. Between the years 2000 and 2010, the agency ran up $4 billion in debt. Since then, no further debt was accrued and McKenna and others have taken that debt down to $1.616 billion by this June.  McKenna sees this new bonding as “strategic and targeted” because of low interest rates and says it buys the state some time to come up with more funding solutions.

Kansas City Representative Greg Razer called for the Legislature to figure out a long-term way to pay for roads and bridges. He summed up the dilemma for House members:

“We’ve maxed out the MoDOT credit card so now we’re going to the general revenue credit card and saying ‘we’ve got to fix this bridge’ and believe me, I 100-percent agree that bridge has to be fixed,” Razer told his colleagues. “This is frustrating to me because I’m in a position now of what I consider two bad votes. I vote ‘yes’ and I’m voting to put us more into debt and opening up the Pandora’s box of GR (general revenue). I vote ‘no’ and we have eight-hour backups on I-70.”

House Budget Chairman Cody Smith’s own version of bridge repair funding allocated $100 million from general revenue.

To wrap up this hearing, he cautioned Director McKenna (and perhaps the governor) not to “pigeonhole the Legislature” in the future.

“I would just ask that in future (grant) applications you not be prescriptive to what the General Assembly may or may not do to finance these projects or to raise the amount needed to pull down federal grants. Because after all, we are writing the checks for the ventures that you are launching into,” Smith said.

MoDOT expects to get a decision on the federal grant in September or October.

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