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

Next week, Missouri voters will decide on Amendment 7 — a three-quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects that would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Construction industry groups have poured millions into convincing Missourians to pay $5.4 billion over the next 10 years. Will they bite?

A coalition of pro-transit forces is urging them not to. Thomas Shrout, a long-time St. Louis transit advocate, is heading the opposition, a group called Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. Shrout says the tax fails on a number of levels.

For one, 85 percent of the money would be spent on roads. Only 7 percent would go to transit and a small portion would go toward local governments.

“It’s just out of proportion,” said Shrout.

Highway capacity in slow-growing Missouri is already abundant. Compared to other American cities, Kansas City and St. Louis rank near the top in highway miles per capita. Driving has been declining nationwide and Missouri’s population grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years.

So why the push to raise taxes to build new roads? Follow the money. “Just about every major [engineering and construction] firm in the country has given to the Yes campaign,” Shrout told Streetsblog.

Driving has been declining in Missouri, so why does the state need billions more for roads? Graph: NextSTL

Even if Missouri’s project list wasn’t larded with highways, raising the gas tax would be a far fairer revenue source. But state legislators have instead settled on the regressive sales tax model.

That means, if Amendment 7 passes, the state’s poorest residents — whether they drive or not — will pay a larger share of their income than the state’s affluent residents. A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that the poorest 20 percent of Missouri residents spend 5.9 percent of their income on sales and excise taxes. Meanwhile the richest 1 percent pay just 0.9 percent.

Gasoline and diesel purchases don’t carry a sales tax. Neither do truck sales, meaning even though trucks cause the most damage to roads, businesses that use trucks would be exempt from paying for those roads in Missouri.

A provision of the amendment would also forbid the state from raising the gas tax or issuing new tolls while the tax is in place.

Missouri’s sales tax rate is already the 14th highest in the country. A significant increase could potentially undermine consumer spending and hurt the state’s economy. It could also hurt transit projects, which are usually funded by local sales taxes. If Amendment 7 passes, it would raise the sales tax to 9.5 percent in St. Louis. That could jeopardize any future attempt to expand light rail, for example, by raising the sales tax.

The editorial board of the St. Louis Post Dispatch has called the tax proposal “an abomination” and “the wrong tax at the wrong time and in some ways, for the wrong purposes.” The paper noted that the proposed sales tax hike follows an income tax decrease that will slash services and disproportionately benefit the state’s wealthiest.

“If Amendment 7 passes, Missourians can drive better roads to crummier schools,” they wrote.

Even so, some active transportation groups — but not all — have lined up behind the proposal, because of some promises the state has made to fund specific projects. The Missouri Bike Federation came out in favor because it would represent the state’s first dedicated funding for biking and walking, and the state promised funding for a number of trail projects. Meanwhile, Trailnet in St. Louis, a fairly sustainable planning and transportation advocacy group, is opposed.

It remains to be seen how opposition efforts will play out against the $2.5 million the construction industry has already poured into convincing voters the new tax will create jobs and improve safety. (They have an additional $1.7 million remaining in their coffers for the “final push,” the Associated Press reports.) Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions has raised only $26,000 — enough for a single mailer. Even so, a number of politicians, including a large portion of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, have allied themselves with the opposition.

In the Kansas City Star this week, State Senator John Lamping called the proposal a “grab” by “special interest groups.”

“The tax is cynical,” he said. “The proponents assume you’re not paying attention.”

It will be interesting to see if they’re right.

  • Thomas R Shrout Jr

    Finally an article that makes the NO case for people who favor transportation investments — just in the right way. Great blog post.

  • Greg Costikyan

    I know that Streetsblog doesn’t generally go the party-political route… but it most definitely applies in Missouri. St. Louis and Kansas City need better transit, and are Democratic; the rest of the state is suburban-to-rural, reliant on roads, and Republican. This is coming up in 2014, an off-year election, meaning poorer, Democratic voters turn out less reliably than they do in a national election. They’ve set the conditions up pretty well for approval.

  • Brent Hugh

    “The Missouri Bike Federation came out in favor because it would represent the state’s first dedicated funding for biking and walking, and the state promised funding for a number of trail projects.”

    Since your summary of our position seriously distorts it, let me point people to our full article on the subject:

    http://mobikefed.org/2014/07/mobikefed-endorses-amendment-7

    And our full multi-year coverage of this issue as we have been in the middle of coordinating the statewide effort to fully incorporate biking and walking into MoDOT’s funding, planning, and policies:

    http://mobikefed.org/tags/missouri-transportation-funding-initiative

    If I might explain our position in greater detail:

    1. Amendment 7 changes the Missouri Constitution to allow state funding of bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects–for the first time in history.

    This is by far the most significant issue. Spending of state road fund dollars on biking, walking, or transit has literally been prohibited by the state constitution for the better part of a century. Missourians bike and walk about half the national average, and the constitutional prohibition on spending is the one single most important reason why.

    Amendment 7 represents the first opportunity we have had in a generation to change this.

    2. Amendment 7 puts the emphasis on safety, creating better transportation options such as biking and walking, and maintaining, rather than expanding, our state’s highway system.

    It doesn’t go all the way that many of us would like, but it still represents major, major progress for Missouri in all of these areas. See our summary of the state’s new transportation plan that incorporates these elements here:

    http://mobikefed.org/2014/02/modot-adopts-new-long-range-plan-missouri-transportation-tax-proposal-passes-first-hurdle-0

    3. There are in fact not just a couple of “trail projects” but some truly major investments in biking, walking, and transit–including over $100 million in pedestrian and nonmotorized transportation improvements in St Louis, incorporation of regional Gateway Bike Plan elements in all road & highway projects in the St Louis region, over $150 million in transit for the Kansas City area, $60 million for bike/ped in the Kansas City area, funding for transit in all parts of the state, funding for sidewalks & sidewalk improvements on MoDOT roads in numerous cities around the state, funding for competitive nonmotorized grant programs in a large number of the rural areas of the state, a step up in the degree of accommodation for biking & walking on all state road projects, etc etc etc.

    In short, this is a tremendously huge step up from the previous state road fund investment in bike, ped, and transit: $0.

    Plus, MoDOT relies on a decentralized regional transportation partner planning system to determine local and regional project priorities. Up until now, most of these 29 committees around the state have concerned themselves with roads and highways only. The lead-up to Amendment 7 is the first time most of these committees have worked to include bike, ped, and transit representatives and projects in any degree at all (again, the constitutional restriction on spending). This full incorporation of biking, walking, and transit into the state’s transportation system and planning will accelerate and improve if Amendment 7 passes.

    4. Turning to a general revenue funding source for transportation is changing the conversation about transportation priorities in a fundamental way.

    Unlike most Missourians (90%, to be exact), I am a great proponent of a major gas tax increase. But it’s worth considering the flip side of that: If your system is funded by fuel tax revenue, then the self-preservation interest of the system is all about maximizing fuel tax revenue.

    You end up with a system of perverse incentives, where nobody wants to reduce vehicle miles traveled, improve fuel efficiency, or encourage non-motor-vehicle modes of travel because those all cannibalize the system and diminish its funding.

    And let’s face it: Much of the resistance to funding bike & ped projects comes because the source of the funding is the fuel tax. “From cars for cars.” This is an argument you can have time and time again, but you’re never going to win it in a final way. Much of the irrational hatred for bike/ped funding we see coming from certain members of Congress stems from this attitude, irrational though it may be.

    Once general revenue is paying for the transportation system (as it is to a huge degree with the federal transportation system now–though no one seems to realize it), the whole tenor of the conversation changes.

    When a tax comes from everyone, it puts tremendous pressure on everyone involved to ensure that it benefits everyone. Having been in the middle of that conversation in Missouri for the past several years–even just looking forward to the potential broad-based tax rather than fuel tax to fund transportation–I can tell you that this isn’t just imaginary. It really does change the basic assumptions of everyone involved in a *very* fundamental way.

    Where when fuel tax is funding the system, the suspicion is always that you are trying to ‘steal’ some of the fuel tax for some ‘other’ use. With general revenue funding for transportation, that argument is turned exactly on its head–to our benefit.

    More:

    http://mobikefed.org/2014/07/mobikefed-endorses-amendment-7
    http://mobikefed.org/tags/missouri-transportation-funding-initiative

  • Streetsblog Network

    Thanks for a more complete explanation. We did link to your full announcement in the story.

  • Eddie Roth

    The Service Employees Union International in Missouri, which represents low wage workers, supports Amendment 7 because it works a break through change in state transportation policy: For the first time Missouri will have a dedicated source of state funding that is available for transit and other bike/ped/ADA accessible urban transportation. That’s why the Citizens for Modern Transit, the leading transit advocacy group in St. Louis (and the organization from which Mr. Shrout retired) also endorse Amendment 7. The Amendment also has been endorsed by the Kansas City Star, the Springfield News Leader and the Columbia Tribune, along with St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay (for whom I work) and Kansas City Mayor Sly James.

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