When I was in high school, the main route I’d take to get from our house to Priory was Clayton Road. It’s a major arterial stretch of road that was either 3 or 5 lanes in the stretch I was driving it, depending on which section I was in. If it snowed, though, Clayton Road was the last road you wanted to be on. Even the littlest snowfall brought the street to a standstill. Why? Jurisdictional disputes. The municipalities, the county and the state couldn’t agree on who’s job it was to plow the road.
Since then, the state has gone in and rebuilt a big part of the road, and my understanding is that for the most part all of that other nonsense has been cleared up. But it raises an interesting point. A major arterial surface street — not a highway, not crossing into another county or anything like that, but just a surface street — is maintained by the state of Missouri. And it’s not alone. Missouri is the 18th largest state by land area, but has the 7th most state-maintained roads.
Now, in a few days, we’ll go to the polls to vote on Amendment 7, a sales tax proposal to fund MoDOT’s infrastructure improvements over the next 10 years. As part of the process of taking the tax to the ballot box, counties and cities across the state have come up with their wish lists of projects, and MoDOT has decided which ones will get Amendment 7 funds. Things like expanding I-70 across the state to 6 lanes and rebuilding sections of old interstate highway in suburban areas are on there, and they’re things that do need to be done, but the wish list doesn’t have a lot of other things on it. Public transit in St. Louis, for instance, is woefully neglected under this plan. While Columbia’s transit system gets expanded hours, new equipment, and even a whole new day of the week for service to run, in St. Louis we get money for studies of what to spend the next influx of cash on.
I thought long and hard about how to vote on Amendment 7 because I do think infrastructure improvements are important. I don’t like the idea of a sales tax for it when Missouri’s gas tax is so low, and raising it would directly charge the people who use the roads to fix them. If we’re going to use a more general source of revenue, we need to have a more general project list that includes more public transit (which is something we should really be treating more like our roads anyway, as a public good and not a novelty).
But there’s also the structural problem of why the state is maintaining so many roads. That’s probably a big reason MoDOT is broke. Having the state transportation department maintain that much road mileage is a weirdly redistributionist way of doing that in such a red state. Turning roads over to county and city streets departments lets them raise taxes in their jurisdictions to maintain the roads being used the most by people there, and lets MoDOT use whatever they’re already bringing in to maintain a smaller number of roads and highways. We should have a discussion of alternate methods of paying for improvements, like tolls on some of the interstates or charging higher license plate fees for electric cars and hybrids that don’t pay as much fuel tax but still put stress on the infrastructure. Then, maybe, we can talk about hiking the transportation taxes statewide. For now, though, I’ll be voting no on Amendment 7.