Vote NO on 7: Continue the Conversation on Transportation Priorities

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No on 7

It’s not easy to distill all that is wrong with Amendment 7 into one short, readable item. A lot of good pieces have been written about why one should vote “no” on August 5 (some links below), and there’s likely nothing novel here. The larger issues at play deserve significant attention, and while risking oversimplification, I’ll try to explain why this amendment to the state’s constitution is a bad idea.

Some context: The core of the St. Louis region, the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County, together, have seen an increase in population of 1% over the past 45 years. In the St. Louis region, vehicle miles travelled is now less than it was in 1996. The number of registered vehicles in Missouri is declining. Today, Kansas City and St. Louis rank first and second of all urbanized areas in the nation in most freeway lanes per capita. The Missouri State Legislature this year passed a $620M per year tax cut that will benefit our state’s wealthiest residents.

This should be enough to illustrate that increasing the state sales tax to generate $480M per year to spend overwhelmingly on roads and highways is a bad idea. Population growth is going to remain stagnant. The forces that once pushed the increase in miles driven (women joining the workforce for the first time, Baby Boomers shuttling kids) have ebbed. The state is wealthy enough to offer massive tax breaks.

Before going any further, here is Amendment 7 as it will appear of the August 5 ballot:

Should the Missouri Constitution be changed to enact a temporary sales tax of three-quarters of one percent to be used solely to fund state and local highways, roads, bridges and transportation projects for ten years, with priority given to repairing unsafe roads and bridges?

This change is expected to produce $480 million annually to the state’s Transportation Safety and Job Creation Fund and $54 million for local governments. Increases in the gas tax will be prohibited. This revenue shall only be used for transportation purposes and cannot be diverted for other uses.

There are problems here of course. What does “priority given to repairing unsafe roads and bridges” mean? Nothing, really. It’s politically calculated to win votes. The “Safety and Job Creation Fund”? Well gosh, that’s sounds good, right? Language like this isn’t honest and does not help voters make an informed decision. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Since 2005, 8,742 people have died on Missouri roads. The number once cause of death for children is a vehicle collision. Remember this when you hear that your road or highway is being “improved” or being made safer. The very simple, very easy, only effective way to make driving safer is to do less of it. No one can design a road that prevents distracted driving, speeding, and drunk driving, the causes of most fatal collisions. The less we drive, the more alternatives people have, the fewer people will die.

If you get past the false premise of needing more and bigger, and safer highways and political-speak of the ballot language itself, there are plenty of reasons to still vote “no”. The sales tax would be high, higher than Chicago and New York, and above 12% in some places. It’s an unfair tax, putting a larger burden on the poorest residents. It’s the wrong tax, as it would allow truck traffic to pass through the state without paying for the roads they use. Amendment 7 also forbids increasing the state gas tax or tolling highways for a decade. The “temporary” tax is also likely to stick around, as a new “crisis” will arise when the new revenue is set to expire.

Sales tax revenue is often used to fund local development initiatives, whether it be a transit tax (like in St. Louis City and County), tax increment financing (TIF), or community improvement districts (CIDs). Increasing the sales tax for other purposes erodes the ability of neighborhoods and communities to fund locally supported initiatives.

Perhaps most confusingly, some supporters of Amendment 7 praise it as a way to finally turn on the state funding spigot for transportation. All state residents pay taxes for projects and services across Missouri that ostensibly benefit us all. But this is a new tax that returns less than we pay, is spent on projects that undermine our region’s urban areas, and overwhelm the small amount allocated to anything other than cars and trucks on highways. If Amendment 7 passes, too many here will be patting themselves on the back, while MoDOT, road builders, and trucking companies laugh all the way to the bank.

Sadly, the local transit advocacy group Citizens for Modern Transit bought this reasoning whole. “For the first time in Missouri’s history, there is a proposed State constitutional amendment which will provide dedicated state funding for public transit.,” read a CMT flyer. The cognitive dissonance is jarring. Again, laundering local tax funds through Jefferson City and MoDOT only reinforces bad transportation planning, skimming millions of dollars off the top of what could be spent locally.

Roughly 5% of funds allocated to the St. Louis region would be spent on public transportation projects. That’s absurd, but the number is likely much worse. The largest allocations would require significant local and/or federal matching funds to be built. The $18M for West Florissant/Natural Bridge BRT requires at least $20M more of our tax dollars from Metro. The $25M for the St. Louis streetcar requires $271.5M in additional federal and local funds. And what if matching funds aren’t found? The projects do not get built. If you’re wondering, the $350M to “improve I-270″ carries no such requirement, nor do any of the other highway projects.

At the root of Amendment 7 is a failure of political leadership. Are there transportation priorities that St. Louis City and County are committed to achieving (here’s where it would be nice to have an cohesive plan)? If so, regional political leaders should bring a plan to voters. They should explain why the projects are needed, who they benefit, and who pays. Instead, we were caught off guard, and were forced to assemble independent project lists in just weeks. Amendment 7 didn’t come from us, nor our political leaders.

The proof that the MoDOT approved list is a hodgepodge of what various politicians calculated would garner the most votes doesn’t require a secret memo or insider information. There is no citywide, countywide, or regional transportation plan. When Governor Nixon placed the question on the August 5 ballot, supporters, and MoDOT scrambled, ultimately tasking county executives (St. Louis City is its own county), with producing project lists.

The belief by sales tax proponents was that voters would be more likely to hand over $6B if they knew more specifically how it would be spent. A list would also effectively move the conversation from where I started here – what kind of transportation investments, and funding mechanisms make sense – to a debate over how good or bad the list might be. This may be seen as politically smart, and even admired, by some who care more about political scores than a better future for Missouri residents.

We’re nearly having a real conversation about our transportation future in St. Louis (at least in some quarters). Voting “no” on Amendment 7 continues this conversation. Voting “yes” ends the conversation for a decade. The inertia of a state constitutional amendment, and tax increase, likely means the conversation’s over for longer.

Voting “no” means that we will have to at least consider an effort to raise the state’s gas tax. A $0.13 per gallon increase would raise between $4-5B over 10 years. The gas tax could be raised by a smaller amount and then we can discuss where $3B or $2B in additional funding can be found. Sometimes voters can imprint political courage through defeat.

To bring this back to a very basic question, who can argue highway spending in the St. Louis area has led to safety or economic prosperity? That’s what proponents of Amendment 7 want you to believe, that past highway spending has led to increasing safety and prosperity, or alternatively (if one can admit that the St. Louis region hasn’t prospered over the past 50 years as it could), that the only thing separating us from safety and prosperity is a few more highway lanes. We know better.

Streetsblog: Will Missouri Voters Go Along With the Highway Lobby’s Money Grab?

Post-Dispatch: MoDOT’s list of shiny objects can’t obscure problems with Amendment 7

Kansas City Star: John Lamping: Road tax proposal is a cynical grab by special interests

Scott Ogilvie on nextSTL: Vote No On Amendment 7 – August 5th

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  • Brian Guy

    I moved from St. Louis to Charlotte seven years ago. If Amendment 7 passes, St. Louis will end up with twice the sales tax rate as Charlotte. Meanwhile, the gas tax will remain half the rate in Missouri as it is in North Carolina. Amendment 7 raises the wrong tax for transportation.

  • STLEnginerd

    Have you considered submitting this as an op-ed to the major newspapers in the state. With the strong financial backing that the Pro7 campaign has the NoOn7 needs some well crafted opinions to be publicly pronounced. Not sure how its going to go but without a strong reasoned argument in the No column I think a large amount of voters will just vote yes because they haven’t witnessed a strong campaign against it. They may think it just must not be that bad. Even the highest profile opponent, Jay Nixon, stated the main reason he was against it was basically retaliation for the Legislature cutting things like Education, not that the law was fundamentally flawed in its funding mechanism.

    For instance I was asked if I was voting for it and I said No. The person who asked said they were thinking about it because it funds new trails… I basically presented why i was voting no as well as some of the major arguments for it and they said they were glad they asked because i gave them somethings to think about. The voters need two choices to vote against it.

  • rgbose

    I will be voting no because
    No new direct flights to Europe or elsewhere
    No new Metrolink line
    No additional Amtrak frequency
    No additional bus frequency
    No additional Metrolink frequency

    • moe

      But you get a nicely paved lane to KC! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. The folks in Jeff City did a lousy job of planning this out. And let’s face it, a lot of this ‘need’ they say they must have has been from accumulated maintenance delays. Instead of building out, they should have been maintaining for the past 2 decades.

  • matimal

    New money for roads is wasted in America today. Cities should do almost whatever it takes to get non-road funding. It’s a guaranteed win for cities. Roads are behind the point.

  • Bill Johnston

    OK naysayers…MoDOT runs out of money shortly and winds up over $100Million short of being able to just maintain existing roads…fact. MoDOT is funded by fuel taxes..fact. Declining fuel tax revenue has resulted in this situation and will continue to do so as MPG requirements continue to increase yielding less and less fuel tax revenue…fact. State Sales tax is STILL $0.04225 and anything above and beyond that YOU voted on for whatever reason the politicos convinced you..fact. EVERYONE benefits from good roads and safe bridges, motorist or not..fact. Therefore, Everyone should share in the expense of their upkeep…motorist or not. Does 7 contain “Pork” for things like Airports ? yes…and other things too. So what’s your alternative plan for maintaining our roads since fuel taxes aren’t going to be the answer ? It’s easy to say NO but the financial needs still remain…also fact !

    • Alex Ihnen

      The case against has been spelled out over and over again. Raising the gas tax alone may not provide $6B (unless raised quite a bit), but it should be raised and there should be an open process to help determine which projects are necessary (not $6B worth). I-70 (and maybe other roads) should also be tolled. The argument so far is that people don’t want those things. Well, if Amendment 7 fails to pass then people don’t want that either. It may be time for some clear political leadership on the issue for the first time.

      • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

        Alex raises great points. We don’t have to rely on a single revenue source to fund necessary improvements — and many of Amendment 7’s beneficiaries may not be necessary burdens on the backs of working and middle class Missourians. Defeat of Amendment 7 will force the General Assembly to do more than simply spitball needed projects and political pork under a simple and regressive funding formula. Defeat will force a discussion on necessary costs and a multi-facted funding formula that could include gasoline tax increases, tolls and a smaller and less burdensome sales tax increase.

      • Bill Johnston

        There is much “pork” in 7 like Airport improvements ?!? Many of the proposed “improvements” should be dialed back and the revenue spent on the horribly deteriorating bridges in the State.

    • Nathan Bookhout

      When you write like that… Fact, it’s really annoying… Fact, and really doesn’t further your argument. But to your point, an alternative plan would be to raise the fuel tax and toll the highways. You know, tax direct use and the heaviest users. Also incentives people to live close to work and shopping, and take mass transit. I would much rather see my sales tax dollar spent to improve and expand metrolink than add a lane through semo.

      • Bill Johnston

        Facts are the truth and the truth hurts, and pain IS annoying ! Facts are NOT an argument. I’m so sorry you were annoyed. Guess you just can’t comprehend that fuel taxes are proven to not be the answer and nether are toll roads. When everyone directly benefits from a service, everyone should help pay for it is my “argument”. Metrolink is nothing more than Socialized Transportation benefitting the few who can take advantage of it at the cost of the many. And please pay attention, the “adding a lane” is slated for I-70 across the width of the State, not in SEMO.

        • Adam

          If gas taxes and tolls don’t work, why are they used in
          practically every other state? And why have no other states resorted to a sales tax to pay for their highways?

          • Bill Johnston

            If fuel taxes are the answer then why is MoDOT’s operating budget falling over $100M short of simple maintenance to existing roadways ? Raising fuel taxes with constant improvements in overall MPG accomplishes very little. How about repairs for our ailing bridges? Raising fuel taxes only penalizes the motorist while roadways benefit everyone who should be contributing to their upkeep, not just the motorists. Toll roads ? Have you ever considered the cost of constructing and maintaining/staffing/enforcing all those toll booths ? Probably not. And then there is the horrible impact on traffic flow, go drive the
            tri-State tollway around Chitown….no thanks Adam.

          • Alex Ihnen

            The decreasing value of the fuel tax is primarily the result of depreciation and not rising MPG. If the tax is indexed to inflation, it would provide a steady source of revenue. Depending on which projects are collectively decided to be essential, it’s like more money would need to be collected, meaning that a combination tolls, fuel tax, sales tax, other, may be necessary. In 1996, the fuel tax equaled roughly 15% of a gallon of gas. Today it’s ~5%. Rising MPG also helps commuters and car drivers in a relative manner as large truck MPG.

          • moorlander

            A sales tax would also see diminishing returns as the sales tax would have provided further incentives to purchase online. How about finally instituting a state wide internet sales tax which would also even the playing field for our brick and mortars?

          • Adam

            “If fuel taxes are the answer then why is MoDOT’s operating budget
            falling over $100M short of simple maintenance to existing roadways?”

            See Alex’s answer below. Also, MoDOT has built way too many miles of highway per capita compared to other states.

            “Raising fuel taxes only penalizes the motorist while roadways benefit
            everyone who should be contributing to their upkeep, not just the
            motorists”

            I’m sorry, but somebody who takes the city bus to work every day has no business paying more to maintain outstate highways than a trucking company that profits from the highway and does ~10,000 times more damage to its surface. If you want to argue that both benefit equally I’ll need to see some numbers.

            “Have you ever considered the cost of constructing and maintaining/staffing/enforcing all those toll booths ”

            I haven’t, personally. Apparently a lot of other people have, though, and found the investment to be cost-effective as is evidenced by the existence of toll booths all over the place.

            “And then there is the horrible impact on traffic flow, go drive the tri-State tollway around Chitown….no thanks Adam”

            Well, you say “no thanks” to the inconvenience of having to spend a few extra minutes in traffic; I say “no thanks” to forcing those who barely use the highways to pay a larger percentage of their income toward highway expansion (not just maintenance per MoDOT’s project list) than those who benefit most from the highways.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Now that Amendment 7 has failed, what’s next? There’s no one answer. Not giving $600M/yr back in income taxes and then asking for $600M/yr in sales tax might be a start. Honestly, isn’t some combination of tolls, gas tax, maybe even sales tax, the way to go?

          • Bill Johnston

            You hit the nail on the head about the recent, special interest tax cut. However, that is general revenue fund income and MoDOT is funded by fuel taxes. The Amendment was worded poorly with far too much pork. Tolls ? Too expensive overall to collect and the impact on traffic flow is horrendous.

          • DCWind

            There is not a single reasonable person who would suggest building a toll plaza in centralized urban areas, or even the suburbs that serve those areas, where horrendous affects on traffic flow would be immediate and obvious. Tolls would be used outside of the cities to collect revenue from the heaviest users of our interstates, the trucking companies and interstate travelers, all while minimizing these “horrendous” impacts on traffic flow. This dedicated source of income would allow for maintenance, widening, etc in segmented stretches that would better respond to actual use and wear better than a bloated and politically charged (and ultimately unnecessary constitutional amendment) tax increase that would have only served the lobbyists and the industries that tried to pass the initiative. Additionally, the gas tax is not adequately funding MODOTs budget because it is currently the 7th lowest in the nation. A modest increase in our gas tax will provide a necessary and much needed infusion of cash into MODOTs coffers. While this might not fully compensate for the estimates provided for in the defeated amendment’s sales tax, it would certainly allow for necessary maintenance of our roads, which, as pointed out in the article, already offer us an unprecedented number of lanes per capita. Regardless of stance or opinion on amendment 7, there will not be an easy fix for the state’s transportation needs. It does stand to reason, however, that submitting a poorly written, rushed and special interest-laden amendment for approval by the voters should not take the place of responsible political leadership in Jefferson City.

          • moe

            Why not? Round Rock and Austin have toll roads and while traffic maybe bad at times, it’s still a lot better than LA or NYC. That’s why ‘thru pass” and such services are for. The only bad is the flip side, forcing more to take the side, longer ways around.

    • dempster holland

      reinstate the cut in income taxes at the higher level, for starters
      Then we can talk