Interstate photo

Missouri has the second-lowest gasoline tax in the nation, at 17 cents a gallon. A proposal to raise it gradually to 29.5 cents passed in the Missouri Senate and now heads to the House.

It isn’t hard to find people with something to say about highway conditions in Missouri.

“You get some bad potholes in places, but in general, the interstates at least are in good shape,” said Ryan Townsend, an Ohio trucker passing through St. Joseph. “The local roads get a little beat up, though, from what I’ve seen.”

That’s one of the more charitable things you’ll hear.

“The number one concern that I hear in the district is our transportation infrastructure,” said state Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby. “Our roads are going to pot and people really want to see the investment in roads so that we can get from here to there.”

Doing something about it, that’s the hard part. Missouri’s gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation at 17 cents a gallon, has remained unchanged since 1996. Voters last rejected a proposed gas tax hike for highway funding in 2018.

“There’s never been a lot of controversy or difference of opinion about the need,” said Patt Lilly, president and CEO of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is how to do we get that funding.”

The latest proposal involves something that’s never been tried in the past: a rebate. Under a bill that gained Senate approval, Missourians could claim a rebate on the new portion of the gasoline tax. The Senate bill would raise the tax a total of 12.5 cents in 2.5-cent annual increases.

It’s based on a similar model used in South Carolina.

“The option of a rebate is appealing,” said Terry Ecker, a Nodaway County farmer who serves on the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. “If I had to predict on this one, I’d say it has a better chance than anything in recent years.”

The gas tax measure, known as Senate bill 262, passed on a vote of 21-13. Hegeman was in favor and state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, voted against it on third reading.

Supporters said the incremental nature of the tax increases might allow it to fall under the state’s Hancock limit, meaning it doesn’t need to go to a statewide vote. Either way, Hegeman thinks it will face an uphill battle in the House.

“A fundamental responsibility of state government is transportation infrastructure,” Hegeman said. “I am really just interested in having enough resources to maintain what we’ve got today. We don’t.”

To show the price of inaction, Ecker can point to the Missouri Department of Transportation website that outlines $825 million in unfunded annual transportation needs, including $300 million for major interstate reconstruction.

Or he can just make the short drive over the state line into Iowa, which has a 32.5-cent gasoline tax and only a fraction of the road mileage to maintain. The problem isn’t just interstates but the lettered routes in rural areas that are the responsibility of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“It’s quite noticeable,” Ecker said. “Our lettered routes, they are crumbling apart. They are no longer maintenance projects. These are major problems.”

Meanwhile, the price of supplies, labor and just about everything associated with highway maintenance has gone up while funding remains unchanged. Gas tax collections actually dropped 15% last year because people drove less due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a list of project after project after project that needs to be done to improve safety and connections,” Ecker said. “We have an asset in our road system that our forefathers put together. It’s our responsibility to maintain it.”

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.

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