January 27, 2016 4:00 PM, EST

MoDOT Director Says 'Tidal Wave' of Repairs on Horizon, Urges Lawmakers to Act

Patrick McKenna, MoDOT Director

The new director of the Missouri Department of Transportation on Jan. 26 continued his call to boost state transportation spending.

At the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, Transportation Director Patrick McKenna cast Missouri's problems as fixable — but not without more money.

He told the committee the problem due to a shortage of funds will grow as bridges built during the Great Depression and during interstate construction continue to age.

"We'll be facing a virtual tidal wave of replacement needs as we go forward," McKenna said. "So getting further behind, or just treading water, is simply not good enough."

He said that already 60% of Missouri bridges are older than their 50-year design life. About 2,000 bridges are in some way deficient, McKenna said.

He urged lawmakers to get ahead of the problem, and to move beyond simple repairs to prioritize a "21st-century transportation system" that McKenna said would increase safety, be a boon to business and help the state retain contract workers. McKenna said that neighboring states — such as Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas and Kansas — have moved forward with transportation plans, which make them more attractive for investment.

He said that proposals to increase the state's gas tax should be considered. Missouri's gas tax of 17 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1996.

McKenna said the state can do less with 17 cents now than it could two decades ago.

"We're not getting the same dollar value out of our construction that we could then," he said. "Commodities have gone up. The cost of construction has gone up. Asphalt, steel and concrete has gone up."

Recent attempts to raise revenue for roads have been unsuccessful.

Voters defeated a proposal in 2014 that would have raised the state's sales tax to pay for new roads and bridges. Last year, a bill that would raise the state's gas tax died during the last days of the legislative session.

But senators this year have so far moved fast on a bill that would raise the state's gas tax 1.5 cents for most motorists and 3.5 cents for diesel users.

Sen. Doug Libla (R-Poplar Bluff ), the bill sponsor, said the tax would generate $80 million, with $56 million going to transportation costs. The bill was voted out of a Senate committee unanimously last week.

A tax increase faces a less certain future in the House, where Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) has resisted an increase.