Missouri's $8 billion transportation funding proposal: Q&A on bike, ped, and transit

This week, the Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation was in Jefferson City with representatives of Trailnet, PedNet, and BikeWalkKC. 

We were able to testify at the House Transportation Committee Hearing about the proposed Missouri $8 billion Transportation Funding Initiative, and then we met as a group with MoDOT Director Dave Nichols to let him know what we are looking for in the new proposal and get a better idea of what MoDOT is planning to do if the new funding initiative passes. 

MoDOT Director Dave Nichols stopped by to visit at Bicycle & Pedestrian Day at the Capitol April 8th
MoDOT Director Dave Nichols stopped by to visit at Bicycle & Pedestrian Day at the Capitol April 8th

Many of our members and allied organizations have had questions about the Transportation Funding Proposal--as well we should! It is a big proposal and will affect Missouri's transportation funding--including funding for biking, walking, trails, Complete Street initiatives, transit, passenger rail, and much more--over the next decades.

It's the single largest and most important shift in Missouri's transportation direction that most of us are likely to see in a generation, or perhaps a lifetime.

So what is it all about?  How will it work?

Missouri Transportation Funding Initiative - Q&A

Q. How does the new funding proposal help biking, walking, and transit? 

A. Under the new proposal, for the first time ever all transportation modes, including transit, bicycling, walking, and others, will be eligible uses of Missouri's state transportation dollars.  

Right now, Missouri's highway fund dollars can be spent only on roads and bridges.  So this one simple, technical change, to allow these other transportation modes to become eligible for funding, has the potential to change everything in Missouri.

Q. Will the new funding proposal help bicycling and walking a little, or a lot?

A. I've been involved in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy in Missouri for over a decade now.  I have a pretty good idea about what happened in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy in Missouri in the two or three decades before that.

If this new funding proposal passes, it will have a bigger positive effect on biking, walking, and trails in Missouri than any single change that's been made in Missouri in the past thirty years.

And not just a bigger effect--a bigger effect by at least a whole order of magnitude.

If you want to change how the system works, change the rules.  This proposal changes the rules for the single biggest source of transportation funding in Missouri. It will have a huge positive effect on how the state accommodates bicycling and walking within its transportation system.

Q. Does this affect MoDOT only, or cities and counties as well?

A. MoDOT receives most of the new funding (90%), but cities and counties will also a receive a share of this transportation funding (5% each).  

Waiting for MoDOT, by Zaskem
Waiting for MoDOT, by Zaskem

Under the existing state highway fund, MoDOT, cities, and counties each receive a share of the tax proceeds. The new plan approximately doubles the amount of state transportation funding received each of the groups: MoDOT, cities, and counties.

So going forward, MoDOT, cities, and counties will still have half of their state transportation from the old source, which will be restricted to roads and bridges.  But the second half will be from the new source, which can be used for any transportation need.

Q. Will cities and counties have the same flexibility as MoDOT to spend their funds in biking, walking, and transit?

A. Yes--and just as with MoDOT, this is new--a flexibility they do not have under current state highway funding.

Q. How much will MoDOT receive each year?

A. $8 billion sounds like a lot, and it is.  But the important question is, how does that stack up compared with current and past levels of funding?

The $8 billion is spread over 10 years and 10% of it goes to cities and counties.  So it will bring just about $720 million to MoDOT each year for the next ten years.  

MoDOT's typical annual budget has typically been around $2 or $2.5 billion.  A about half of that typically has come from federal transportation dollars and the other half from state dollars. The state side of MoDOT's funding is falling rather dramatically--the so-called 'funding cliff'--especially after Amendment 3 funding ran out in about 2011.  (Amendment 3 was a temporary 'band-aid' fix; it should be no surprise to anyone that Amendment 3 funding ran out because it was designed to do so from the start.) This proposal is designed to replace that lost funding.

Q. Why does Missouri need a new Transportation Funding Tax? 

A. MoDOT's current funding sources are decreasing in purchasing power each year.  This funding plan is really replacement funding rather then entirely new funding. 

Fuel tax - in buying power
Fuel tax - in buying power

The state fuel tax, MoDOT's main source of state funding, was last raised in the late 1990s.  The fuel tax is not tied to inflation, and so it decreases in purchasing power by 2-3% each year.   In addition, cars are getting better gas mileage and people are driving fewer miles than in the past.  Result is, MoDOT's revenues are down about $700 million per year (in real dollars, inflation-adjusted) compared with say the early 2000s or late 1990s.

So this is in some sense a "new" tax but in terms of real dollars (inflation-adjusted) it is simply returning Missouri's transportation investment to the level it was in the late 1990s-early 2000s.

The graph to the right shows how the buying power of the federal gas tax has decreased over the years. The situation with Missouri's fuel tax is exactly the same, because the same factors are at work.  In terms of buying power, we're very close to a historic low in Missouri and federal fuel taxes.

Q. What happened to the tax increases voters approved for MoDOT in the past?  Has MoDOT wasted our tax money?

A. The short answer is no, MoDOT hasn't blown or wasted the previous tax increases.  The buying power of previous tax increases has simply eroded due to the slow but natural action of inflation, increased vehicle gas mileage, and decreased driving.

In short, we've been enjoying a small but steady automatic annual tax cut in our fuel taxes.  We all enjoy tax cuts, but at some point we have to say--if we want to world class transportation system in Missouri--whether for automobiles or for bicycling, walking, trails, transit, or rail--we as citizens have to agree to band together and pay the cost.

If anything, MoDOT is leaner and more efficient--and more responsive to public input--than ever.

Q. How much will it cost?

A. 1 cent sales tax will cost you 10 cents of each $10 purchase.

Q. How is the new transportation tax different from the existing state fuel tax?

A. The new plan allows each region of Missouri flexibility in its transportation options and priorities--flexibility that we do not now have in Missouri.

Under current state funding, each region can decide its priorities for the state highway fund.  The choices are:

  1. Roads and highways
  2. Different roads and highways

Under the new plan, each region will be able to choose and prioritize among: 

An urban Complete Street
An urban Complete Street

  1. Roads and highways
  2. Projects that improve mobility and remove barriers to biking and walking along our roads and highways
  3. Trails
  4. Transit--facilities, equipment, and/or operations
  5. Rail
  6. Ports, airports, etc

Now, does that mean that each and every region of Missouri will make the right choices?  No, of course not.

But each region will have the opportunity to make positive choices in ways it has not previously been allowed.  We are confident, that with the input of local citizens from around Missouri, most regions will make far, far better choices than they currently are allowed to make.

Q. Who decides those regional priorities?

A. MoDOT Central Office will not be making the funding and priority choices with the new funding. 

Rather, MoDOT is letting each Regional Planning Commission and Metropolitan Planning Organization decide that region's priorities and process for determining the priorities.

Q: How can we make sure the new funding supports the right priorities in my region?

A: You can help in these ways:

  • MoDOT is asking citizens across Missouri to help identify transportation needs--including bicycling, walking, trails, and transit needs. 
    A rural Complete Street
    A rural Complete Street

    Please take the time to let MoDOT know what you need in your part of the state--it helps MoDOT set its priorities.
  • MoDOT is asking citizens what their priorities are for this new funding.  Take the time to give MoDOT your opinion.
  • Every Regional Planning Commission (RPC) and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) across the state will be identifying people interested in bicycling, walking, trails, transit, rail, and these other transportation modes that have not previously been eligible for state highway funding.

    Contact your local RPC or MPO and let them know that you are interested in the new funding, interested in helping them identify their priorities and projects for your area(s) of interest, and ask how you can help. 

    Every RPC and MPO will need committees, committee members, and public input on biking, walking, Complete Streets, trails, transit, rail, and so on. Some RPCs and MPOs already have committees and expertise in these areas, but many do not. 

    If you are interested in bicycling, walking, trails, transit, rail, or similar transportation areas, you may be able to serve on a committee or give feedback on their plans, priorities, or proposals.  Or--just as important--you may be able to help your RPC or MPO identify the right people with the right expertise to be on those committees.

Why a sales tax?  Why not a fuel tax, tolling, or some other option?

The short answer is that any tax increase in Missouri must come before voters for a vote of the people.  And--of course!--it must pass that vote.

So everyone involved in studying this issue has done polling and research to see what form of tax has a chance of gaining approval from Missouri voters.

Here are some of the options:

  • Fuel tax increase: It would take a $0.25 per gallon increase in the Missouri fuel tax to raise the same amount of funds as the one cent sales tax.  Missouri voters reject a fuel tax increase as low as five cents per gallon by about an 80/20 margin.
  • Toll roads: I personally like this option a lot (and the fuel tax increase, too!) but Missouri voters reject it by an overwhelming margin.
  • Raise the vehicle registration fee: Raising the same amount of money as the one cent sales tax would require an increase in the annual vehicle registration fee of nearly $200.  This is a lot to pay all at once, and has little support from Missouri voters.
  • A combination of funding sources: Why not raise the fuel tax a little, the sales tax a little, the registration fee a little, and so on?  The trouble is, at the voting booth the 'combination' approach tends to do as well as the least popular option. Combining several options decreases the chances of a proposal getting a pass from voters rather than increasing the odds.

    In 2002, a 'combination' funding proposal was defeated by Missouri voters by a 3-to-1 margin.  No one is very interested in repeating that plan.

    One conclusion from all this, is that the referendum and popular vote process may not be the best way to set tax policy.  But like it or not, it is the system in place in Missouri for now.

Q. Is this our last hope? Or what?

A. The 'transportation establishment' in Missouri has been working to find a solution to MoDOT's transportation funding problem for over a decade.

Within the large, broad coalition that now supports the transportation funding proposal that is set to be approved by the Missouri General Assembly soon (if all goes as planned!), there are a large variety of ideas and opinions. 

Ben Kenobi, Lucasfilm
Ben Kenobi, Lucasfilm

Many coalition members oppose any increase in taxes.  Many support one transportation mode or another, and don't care about the rest.  Many dislike the particular tax options that have been proposed and discussed--ideas ranging from fuel tax increases to auto registration fee increases to toll roads to income taxes to vehicle-per-mile fees to sales taxes.

Basically, every group involved hates something about the proposal.

But everyone involved has also realized that Missouri transportation faces a real crisis if we don't find some sort of funding.

So the groups have worked out a proposal that everyone can get behind.  

And MoBikeFed and our allies have been working overtime the past several years to ensure that bicycling and walking was included in the mix.  The result: It was included, on the same basis as every other transportation option.

In short: If we approve this measure, we're looking at 10 cents more every time we spend $10 at the store.  But we're also looking at a future for Missouri that includes a real fair share for bicycling, walking, trails, Complete Streets, and transit.

Q. I/my group would support this proposal if only X were changed!

Groups that wanted to have major input on this proposal have been involved in the process for many years.  They were involved with groups like the Missouri Transportation Alliance and the Blue Ribbon Citizen's Commission, who have done years of background work building support for the transportation funding initiative.

So if you would really like a different outcome, you should teleport five years into the past and spend those years deeply involved with those two groups.

Here is the political reality today:  At this point in the legislative process, a huge, coordinated effort by a large number of powerful groups could probably tweak the outcome slightly.

And once the legislative process is complete, if the proposal passes, it will be for an up or down vote, with no other choices possible.

If the legislative process fails, a private group, perhaps the Missouri Transportation Alliance, is certain to pick up where the General Assembly left off, most likely with very similar language and goals as the current proposed legislative.

So, if you or your group truly wants to change the outcome of the proposal and change its priorities, here is how:

  1. Get involved with MoDOT's On The Move planning process over the next several months to influence MoDOT's plan and project list for the new funding
  2. Get involved with your local Regional Planning Commission or Metropolitan Planning Organization to influence their new processes, priorities, and plans for your local region.  RPCs & MPOs is where the key decisions will be made, once the resolutions pass the General Assembly.
  3. Join the Transportation for Missouri Coalition, which is working to ensure that the voice of bicycling, walking, trails, transit, and related organizations and citizens is heard.
  4. If the legislative process fails, get involved with the Missouri Transportation Alliance.

Q. Aren't we better off just keeping the current system?

If we reject the current proposal, we are stuck with our current transportation funding system for at least another decade.

Under the current system, we are never going to get what we need for transportation modes like transit, biking, walking, and rail.  Why not?  Because the system is stacked against us.

Do you want to be stuck with that for the next decade or more?

The new Missouri Transportation Funding Proposal changes the system, and it changes it dramatically in our favor.  Why?  Because the new system is stacked in our favor.

This is our one chance in a generation to change Missouri transportation for the better, and build funding for bicycling and walking right into the system.

Find out more about the details, history, and background of the Missouri Transportation Funding Proposal here.

Join the Transportation for Missouri Coalition here.


Photo Credits:

Join MoBikeFed's Advocacy Network

MoBikeFed is a statewide group of people like you, working together for better bicycling, walking, and trails in Missouri. When you join our advocacy network you receive occasional important advocacy alerts and bicycle, pedestrian, and trails news from around Missouri.

Working together we make a real difference! Join our advocacy network:

Want better bicycling and walking in Missouri?
We rely on the support of members like you.  Please join, renew, or donate today.