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Opposing sides square off on sales tax hike for transportation needs

On July 9, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission approved a list containing $4.8 billion worth of transportation-related construction projects. On Aug. 5, voters will decide if those projects will receive the funding needed to see them through to fruition.

On the ballot is Amendment 7, a three-quarter-cent sales tax increase that would produce an estimated $5.4 billion increase in revenue for transportation-related needs over a 10-year period.

Topping the list of some 800 projects is the rebuilding and widening of Interstate 70 across the state. In the St. Louis region, including St. Louis City and St. Charles, Franklin, Jefferson and St. Louis Counties, work on 86 improvements would total about $1.5 billion. Those dollars will span 86 different projects, which will include improvements to local airports, ports and railways.

Spending on highway and road projects, including bridges, will claim most of the revenue from the tax hike but money also is earmarked for public transportation improvements, port, rail and aviation upgrades and rapid transit (bus) lines.

There are 17 projects specific to St. Charles County roads, the size of which ranges from relatively small $400,000 projects to the tens of millions.

$30 million is designated to improve and add lanes on Route 94 from I-70 to Route 340. $46 million is aimed towards improving I-70 between TR Hughes Boulevard and Bryan Road. A proposed $63 million is set for adding lanes to I-64 between Route K and I-70, and $39 million is designated for partial improvements on Route N between I-64 and I-70.

The complete list of transportation projects can be viewed at modot.org/movingforward. St. Charles area projects are listed on page 23.

Not everyone sees the list or its related tax hike in a favorable light.

Thomas R. Shrout, Jr., spokesman and treasurer for Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, has said that passage of Amendment 7 will give Missouri one of the highest sales tax rates in the country, exceeding 10 percent in some areas where municipal and other special levies already boost the total.

“The proposed sales tax … unjustly shifts the burden for road construction from highway users like the trucking industry to Missouri consumers and working families,” Shrout said.

Jewell Patek, campaign manager for Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, disagreed.

Patek countered that because spending for food, health care and other basics of life are exempted from the sales tax increase – the higher tax would not be charged on groceries, prescription drugs or gasoline purchases – the criticism is unfounded.

“We’ve been traveling around the state quite a bit visiting with individuals and groups and we’re excited about the response we’ve received,” Patek said.

Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs has received contributions of well over $2 million to promote the sales tax increase, but Patek says it remains a daunting task.

For their part, Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions has “about $4,000” available to fight the sales tax hike, according to Shrout. “But we have a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter,” he said.

Opponents to the increase have suggested that a better funding mechanism for road improvements is to tax those who use them and, by some accounts, create the most wear and tear – namely trucks and by association the sales tax on diesel fuel.

But proponents of Amendment 7 say that if the sales tax on diesel fuel were used to raise adequate revenue for funding transportation needs, that levy would have to be increased to 90 cents per gallon (it is now 17 cents pre gallon) and would raise the prices of everything trucks transport and consumers purchase.

Such an increase also would hit farmers and owners of pick-up trucks hard, as well as the increasing number of owners of passenger cars with diesel engines, Patek observed.

Meanwhile, MoDOT and other transportation organizations, are concerned that voters might wait to take action only after existing systems fail.

“This list of projects gives us an unprecedented opportunity to address our aging infrastructure, invest in the future of all modes – such as transit, air, bike and pedestrian needs and ports – and to provide some much needed safety projects,” said MoDOT’s St. Louis District Engineer Greg Horn in a press statement on July 9.

In an earlier interview, Horn said: “Sometime around 2018, Missouri won’t be able to match the federal dollars available. When we reach that point, we won’t even have enough money to maintain what we have, let alone make any improvements. If we wait until we have to start closing down bridges and roads before we take action, we really get behind.”

He added that a little-known statistic included in MoDOT’s long range plan is that the state has the seventh largest state highway network in the nation, however, Missouri ranks 40th out of 50 states in funding per mile.

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