MoDOT to Taxpayers: Didn’t like our Carrots? Here comes the Stick!

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The MoDOT-road construction industrial complex dangled carrots in front of voters last summer. The shiny new objects were supposed to entice voters to pass Amendment 7, a 0.75% sales tax increase for ten years that didn’t even apply to gas, and would forbid gas tax increases or tolls. Backers tried to scare voters with bridge fragments crushing school buses (ironic given that car collisions are the leading cause of death for kids while this funding would have promoted more driving) and warning that road safety was at risk and emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to travel large distances as quickly to get to them in time of need. Voters rejected Amendment 7 last August by almost 19 points. Now here comes the stick. Naughty voters beware- tough choices are ahead. There will only be $325M in construction funding by FY2017, thus the Missouri 325 System.

While it is mainly a way to scare voters and legislators into finding more funding for MoDOT, this plan is actually a step in the right direction. MoDOT will only make capital improvements to 8,000 of its 34,000 miles of responsibility. The rest will only receive basic maintenance.

Delving into the included documents reveals how (willfully?) clueless the system is and that greater reform is needed before more funding is approved.

Gallons of Fuel Taxed in Missouri hasn
{Gallons of Fuel Taxed in Missouri hasn’t fallen off a cliff, just not kept up with unrealistic projections}

In the “How We Got Here” section they again blame higher fuel economy even though fuel consumption hasn’t fallen off a cliff. It’s easier to scapegoat rising fuel economy mandated by the Feds over the increased heavy truck traffic that does 1000s of times more damage to roads than a mid-sized car.

Kudos for bringing up inflation. MoDOT officials rarely mention this in interviews. Probably because the obvious solution to that is raising the gas tax, which is politically unpopular. Since the fuel tax is a fixed amount per gallon it is cut every year by inflation. On top of that the cost of road building materials has out-paced inflation, thus a double whammy.

The big construction budgets of the last decade were fueled by bonding and now the interest and principal payments are coming home to roost. Shouldn’t the big boost to our economy form all that road building be paying off by now? No, because little regard is given to return on investment for road projects. It’s about more, more, more.

They fail to mention declining vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The economy is changing and growth is less correlated with more VMT. Personal preferences are changing too. MoDOT’s projections, like just about every state DOT’s, of huge, never ceasing VMT growth have missed the mark consistently. If you sought investors in your enterprise with such a poor track record of market projections, you’d be laughed out of the office. They are used to justify more, more, more while digging us a bigger and bigger hole.

Maybe they
{Maybe they’re planning to build too much?}

This is not only due to having a low gas tax, but also there are so many miles that get little use
{This is not only due to having a low gas tax, but also there are so many miles that get little use}

They fail to mention that 34,000 miles of roads might be too much for our population and economy to sustain. They fail to mention the luxurious features added like these flyovers near Farmington and in Jasper County. Does the incremental increase in economic activity compared to an intersection come anywhere close to paying for them? Not even close. Their purpose was to provide jobs for the industry. Without state subsidy the towns and counties in which these lie would never have been able to afford them.

They fail to mention the spreading out of our cities and towns enabled by road projects which have burdened each of us with more infrastructure of all types to take care of. We’ve made ourselves house poor. Instead of fixing the leaky roof, we built an addition, and now we’re wondering why we can’t afford to fix the roof.

MoDOT warns that Federal matching funds that would help pay for roads and bridges will be left on the table. This is a good thing. Metro should get those funds to build Metrolink. If only it were that easy.

Next come the sticks. In 10 years only 27% of the supplementary system will be in good condition. Already nearly half the fatalities on state highways occur on the supplementary system, and there won’t be funds to add safety features. Perhaps their design speeds are too high? Perhaps people could live closer to each other in places called towns so they don’t have to drive as far and as fast? By 2024, 1,434 bridges will be in poor or serious condition. Why are we adding a lane to the Poplar Street Bridge when there are currently 483 bridges in Missouri in poor or serious condition?

Primary roads in the St. Louis area
{Primary roads in the St. Louis area}

The sticks aren’t exclusive to rural areas. State routes within cities are mainly a part of the supplementary system. Want a crosswalk put in? Too bad, no money. Only the interstates within I-270 are a part of the primary system. Don’t worry exurbanites, the sprawl routes outside I-270 are. Your state subsidies for development will continue.

They warn stroads like Natural Bridge, St. Charles Rock Rd, Page, Olive, Manchester, Watson, Gravois, Lemay Ferry, and Telegraph will be left to wither. Some of these routes, especially the ones in the city were taken over by the state as part of the horse-trading the last time the gas tax was increased. The city couldn’t afford to maintain them ironically because MoDOT destroyed the tax base of the city by building highways through it and blighting areas near them. MoDOT prioritizes level of service, moving more cars more quickly as fast as possible safely (for cars), that is making them roads.

A city should prioritize creating a platform for private-sector wealth creation which earns a return to the city via greater tax base- a street. Leaving these out is a good thing if we are given control of them. We’ll have to figure out how to take care of them rather than depend on the state. Without state subsidy we will have to get more out of those streets than we do now. Yes, that means more buildings taller than one story, less parking, slower design speeds, living closer to each other, more walking. We will have to increase the amount of economic activity per unit of infrastructure. We’ll be safer, wealthier, and healthier for it.

MoDOT encourages us to take action and ask tough questions. Let’s ask why gas and deisel taxes are so low? Was limiting them to only go to roads and bridges in 2004 wise? Shouldn’t diesel taxes reflect the amount of damage done to roads by heavy loads? Why is fuel exempt from sales taxes? Why can’t counties and cities levy their own fuel taxes? Should we not bond again and go to pay-as-you-go? Why should urban areas subsidize low productivity projects in other areas of the state? Why does MoDOT gamble with tax dollars on low returning investments on the edges of towns and cities? Why should we approve more money when MoDOT projects have done so much damage to cities big and small? Shouldn’t lowering transportation costs for Missourians be a top priority? Should the nearly 60-year-old elevated I-44 lanes downtown be replaced by a boulevard before it collapses? How does increasing level of service on city streets make us safer or wealthier? Would increasing Amtrak frequency from STL to KC and encouraging more freight hauling by rail be cheaper than widening I-70? If only 8,000 miles of the 34,000 are critical to the state, should much of the rest be turned over to counties? Why has Missouri’s economy lagged the nation’s despite all the roads we’ve built? Is more, more, more paying off?

While not perfect, let’s give the Missouri 325 plan five or ten years. It would give our population and economy a chance to catch up to the bloated system we’ve burdened ourselves with while ferretting out what parts are truly valuable. A period of constraint will help us break bad habits, rearrange priorities, and take us to a better place.

MoDOT Tough Choices Ahead Executive Summary by nextSTL.com

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  • Huldia Cox

    I still don’t hear any discussion about the root of the problem that started almost 10 years ago when MODOT took a 30 year bond that paid for 5 years of construction. During internal discussions at MODOT that issue was brought up, MODOT management said at that time they knew they would have to raise taxes as the bond repayments reached maturity. Now that construction is over and we have MODOT bonds that take 75% of the budget. The incoming tax revenue to MODOT hasn’t significantly changed, it’s just that MODOT has a long term bond problem. MODOT shouldn’t be allowed to bond if this is how reckless they are with the math. MODOT should only get to spend what they bring in.

  • kjohnson04

    Here’s an idea; force MoDOT give up 10 percent of its budget to bike/transit/walking improvements. In other words, keep subtracting from MoDOT’s budget and responsibilities until it falls in line with states that place a higher interest on things not involving automobiles.

    • Kevin

      lol….this is a horrible idea and there is literally better chance of MO Legislature approving gay marriage then this awful idea…..modot already builds/rebuilds more sidewalks then anyone else. 15% of the 18 cent fed gas tax already goes to Transit….who now you want car drivers to pay more transit?

  • stlsf

    Think Missouri is bad…Governor ‘Moonbeam’ Brown of California.

  • Eric

    The 325 Plan could have serious long-term consequences for biking and walking. The local roads on the state system are often very important for local bike/ped networks. In small towns the Main Street is often a MoDOT route. In the cities, many urban arterial streets are MoDOT routes.

    As MoDOT narrows its focus to the highways and Interstates, there will be little state funding for sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, etc. along these locally important yet state-owned roads. Here in the KC area, MoDOT routes are critical parts of local bike/ped networks and future plans. Urban arterials like Bannister Road, 7 Hwy, Holmes Road, 23rd Street, are just a few examples.

  • JZ71

    The legislature has given MODOT responsibility for many miles of tertiary rural roads (those single and double letter roads) that are little more than glorified driveways. In many other states, those are the responsibility of the county (or city or subdivision), not the state. Now may be the time to take a hard look about whose responsibility every mile in the state should be, and focus our limited resources on the most heavily-travelled corridors.

    I personally have no objection to raising our fuel taxes. While they’re imperfect, they’re the nearest thing we have for balancing weight and miles travelled, the two biggest factors in highway costs. In a perfect world, we’d also add in congestion pricing and taxing alternative fuel sources, as well, but that’s going to require getting past a major hurdle with privacy concerns (since real time monitoring is an inherent assumption).

    Bottom line, everyone wants someone else to give them a free ride, it doesn’t matter if it’s truckers or transit users. Charging based on actual consumption would, in theory, be the “fairest” way to distribute costs, but many of us also want to introduce social engineering into the equation, and that’s where things get truly complicated!

    • matimal

      What we have now is social engineering, not people paying for what they use.

  • Streetsblog Network

    Man that was a brilliant post.

    • rgbose

      Thanks!

  • Mike

    Biggest issue modot has is this marriage of “give us more money and here is what we will do with it”…Modot or any agency cant just say give us more money and we will tell you later what will will do…it would never pass so they have to do these lists where you have to give everyone something to make them happy and with a region like ours that’s so fragmented, there is no one transportation vision…its all over the map..you have building new roads in st.charles, shoulders on every road in Franklin/Jefferson, West County expend every bridge when a company wants to build a new HQ, ect. and you cant pass anything if you don’t give everyone something, so modot is really between a rock and a hard place…this is why East West gateway needs to set a vision for the region but again they do so much horse trading that its impossible to have a single vision.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Well put.

  • moe

    On one side we have the ‘No tax is a good tax (but I still want my services to not only stay the same but improve)’. On the other side we have incompetent management and using political carrots with roads to cover it. And then we have the 15 second attention span voter. It all boils down to a cluster f……. Then they’ll wait till a major bridge collapses or some other event and use it to pass an even bigger bond issue to just kick the can down the road even further.

  • Alex Devlin

    If you have $20, you’ll learn to live off $20.
    If we have $325,000,000, we’ll learn to live off $325,000,000.

    • Mike

      but the thing is there another $400,000,000 out there allocated to Missouri and paid by Missouri gas buyers (18 cent federal gas tax) that will go to other states if Missouri doesn’t have a 20% state match for it…so basically this comes down to finding $100M-150M a year in State funds to match the Missouri’s entire federal funds allocation….now how that $400M is spent? thats up to the region and mostly East West Gateway Board

      ill use round #’s for simplicity- MoDOT generates about $1B a year in state revenue from state gas tax (17 cents but 5 goes to city/county), car sales tax, registrations ect. and it gets allocated about $1B from the federal gov (comes from the highway trust fund which generates $ from the 18 cent federal gas tax) To get that $1B in fed funds it has to have 20% state match…so for every $1 state dollar, it gets $4 from feds…but before it can use its state funds to match fed funds it has expenses to pay like it has to give $250M to highway patrol, $275M for debt service, pay 5100 employees (use to be 6300 before they got rid of 1200 2 years ago), keep the lights on in buildings, buy salt, truck ect…once all that is subtracted than whats left in state funds it can use to match that $1B in fed funds thats allocated…and right now and going forward in some years that’s a negative number and in others in not close to the $200-250M it needs to fully match its federal allocation. this is all of course a 30,000 foot view, its a bit more complex.

      • tbatts666

        It sounds like the problem lies with the federal funding mechanisms to me.

        • Mike

          yes but i doubt feds will change their rules because Missouri doesn’t have enough state funds to match its entire allocation….there is something called a August Redistribution, where they sweep up all the unmatched funds and doll it out to states that can match it.

          • Guest

            to touch base on the “how we got here” part- i think what modot is doing is trying to simplify the problem. Got to remember who the audience here is…average Missourian…if they started to explain the actual problem- inflation and that the 17 cent state gas tax is actually worth 8 cents in today’s $ because of the price of steel, concrete, ect it would lose 90% of the people in 30 seconds.

        • jayhwk

          There is a lot of hysteria in the media about structurally deficient bridges, but the federal money partially causes the problem. There is a lot of federal money available for new bridges and replacing structurally deficient bridges, but none for routine bridge maintenance. The result? It is in the best interest of a state to let bridges decay until they are no longer usable and replace them, even if the replacement costs more than the maintenance would have over the lifespan of the bridge.

          The other factor is that the road geometry (width) is included in the score. A structurally sound bridge could have points deducted if it does not meet current federal design standards. Bridges that don’t meet current standards are called “functionally obsolete”. A bridge inspection will recommend replacement for a functionally obsolete bridge even if it would be possible to use it for many more years based on a structural survey alone.

          While narrow bridges and bridges without shoulders are undoubtedly problematic for drivers, given the funding problems it makes sense to report the road geometry sufficiency separately and prioritize repairs for bridges that actually require structural repairs.

          • tbatts666

            That’s so nuts.

            What has the engineering profession done to our cities with indiscriminate application of standards…. the horror!!!

      • T-Leb

        Buying and using salt is a waste of money and reduces any benefit by causing environmental damage. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/science-nature/what-happens-to-all-the-salt-we-dump-on-the-roads-180948079/

        • Mike

          im sure salt is less then half of 1% of their budget…but way to miss the big overall point 🙂

          • T-Leb

            Is there no room for more points? Why assume?
            “According to numbers obtained by ABC 17 News Wednesday, MoDOT has spent $40 million statewide on winter cleanup operations, close to a yearly average of $42 million.

            In the past ten years, 2008 was the most expensive for MoDOT, with cleanup costing $64.7 million. 2012 was the cheapest in the previous decade, with expenses at $15.8 million.”
            http://www.abc17news.com/news/modot-faces-strains-on-salt-budget/24321572

      • John Norquist

        Mike the Feds stopped matching at 4 to 1 decades ago. States now get flat allocations. The matching language is still in the law, but has no effect. Missouri DOT will not lose Fed money, they’ll just lose the illusion that they will get matching money. MoDOT is just trotting out the “matching” argument because it’s worked in the past.

        • Mike

          This is 100% wrong. Federal funding had ALWAYS been and will be reimbursement and the dot gets reimburset at 80% on projects that are eligible for federal funds (basically all roads above principle arterial) thus 20% state match. Feds are talking about possibly only reimbursing at 65% rate if there is no solution on fixing the highway trust fund. This is way MAP-21 got extended instead of a new T bill because congress couldnt agree on the new reimbursement split.

  • Guest

    0 mentions of East West Gateway Board of Directors- the board of elected officials that has the final say of which projects get built….

    • rgbose

      I’m eager to see who Stenger picks for the county’s dept of transportation and what priorities he brings to EW Gateway. Will he push for change or go along to get along?

      • Mike

        Stephanie Leon Streeter is the “acting” director…

        • rgbose

          The scuttlebutt I heard last week was that there was a good chance someone nextSTLers would love will get the nod. We’ll see.

          • Mike

            Ogilvie? 🙂

          • Scott Ogilvie

            Ha, no not me. Position requires an engineer, but I do know they’re looking at some people with a different approach than in the past.