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Price of Potholes: Missouri Scrambles for Funding to Fix Its Transportation System

TRIP Study Finds Missourians Lose $8 Billion Annually on Extra Vehicle Costs

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Above image credit: The Kansas City area's network of interstates is great for drivers, but puts stress on air quality. (File photo)

Consider this the price of potholes.

Missourians lose $8 billion a year — or nearly $1,900 for the average Kansas City driver — on extra vehicle operation costs, according to a new report from TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit. 

Blame poor road conditions, loss of time and fuel due to traffic congestion and traffic accidents related to the lack of adequate safety features.

Missourians lose so much because more than half of the major locally and state maintained roads are in poor to mediocre condition, according to the report. In addition, 9% of locally and state maintained bridges are rated poor/structurally deficient.

Deficient road costs in Missouri
Missouri pays a high price for poor roads, according to a new study from a nonprofit organization. (Source: Trip)

Road conditions aren’t just costing money, though. Unsafe roads can contribute to more vehicle crashes. According to MoDOT and TRIP findings, traffic crashes in Missouri caused 4,431 deaths from 2014-2018.

“The TRIP report confirms what we know about the deficiencies in the condition of our transportation system in Missouri – there are not enough resources to properly maintain it,” said Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, in a press release. “Missouri’s basic infrastructure condition will continue to get worse until the proper funding is addressed.”

Closer to home, the study found that 27% of Kansas City area roads are in poor condition, and an additional 25% are in mediocre condition. Kansas City drivers specifically lose an average of $1,873 a year on extra vehicle operation costs. Traffic congestion causes an average of 47 hours a year for KC drivers.

For MoDOT, the study illuminates what they already knew, and highlights a worsening revenue outlook in a year defined by a pandemic and a steep economic recession. Fewer drivers on the roads due to the CoVID-19 pandemic sapped fuel tax revenue earlier in the year.

MoDOT reported in October that revenue from motor fuel, motor vehicle sales and driver’s license fees were about $38 million less than projected for the 2020 fiscal year that ended June 30. In April, MoDOT said it expected to lose 30% of its revenue over the next 18 months due to the pandemic. 

Missouri doesn’t invest much in its highways. MoDOT’s 2019 National Performance Report Card found the state ranks 48th in the amount of money invested in its highways per mile.

Even so, the Reason Foundation’s annual highway report found that Missouri was the second most cost effective road system in the country. Kansas was ranked just behind Missouri at third. North Dakota was ranked number one.

“Currently in Missouri we have a list of $825 million in needs that are unmet,” said Ed Hassinger, MoDOT Deputy Director and Chief Engineer. “These aren’t wants, these are needs. These are things like safety improvements, bridge replacements, those critical interchanges in our urban areas that reduce congestion and develop economic opportunities. That’s our unfunded needs that we can’t meet today.”

Hassinger said that the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission is supporting a legislative effort to implement two new policies that would help fund MoDOT.

Two bills were pre-filed by Senate President Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan) last week that, if passed, would increase the motor fuel tax by 2 cents per year over the next five years, starting in 2022.

Missouri’s fuel tax currently stands at 17 cents per gallon, the second lowest in the country. Missouri has not raised it’s motor fuel tax since 1996.

Missouri has the second lowest fuel tax in the country.
Missouri has the second lowest fuel tax in the country. (Source: American Petroleum Institute)

The tax increase would have to be approved by state voters, which Schatz acknowledged would be a challenge. 

“It’s going to be tough either way. But I think it’s necessary,” Schatz said. “We’ve got to have a conversation about how we’re going to do this.”

The senator also said that the motor fuel tax was “the most fair” and referred to it as a “user fee.”

The other potential piece of legislation would be a change in how registration fees for vehicles are assessed. The state currently uses a horsepower-based model. Hassinger proposed changing it to a model based on miles per gallon.

“That way it kind of blunts that idea that as cars get better gas mileage we get less revenue,” he said.

Hassinger and Len Toenjes, president of the Association of General Contractors of Missouri, are urging Missourians to see these policies as investments, rather than extra costs.

“If we don’t make the investment to do those things that make those things work, and bring economic activity to the state, we’ve really lost an opportunity,” Hassinger said. “There’s a cost to investing, and that’s a hard decision to make for our policymakers. But also there is a cost to not investing.”

According to the TRIP report, $469 billion in shipped goods are delivered to and from Missouri per year. That economic driver relies on quality roads to ensure safe passage of imports and exports.

“We can’t cut our way to better roads, we’ve got to have the investment to make our roads better and conditions safer,” Hassinger said. “I think the economic development component that really is important is if we don’t make these improvements to draw the economy to the state of Missouri, we’re going to be sitting here wondering why everybody went to Iowa or Illinois or somewhere else.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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