Taking the high road
Since moving to Missouri a little more than a year ago, I’ve been fascinated by our “lettered” highways. I’d never seen anything like it, and for good reason. Only one other state, Wisconsin, has such a system. When my Tennessee family and friends made the trip to Echo Bluff State Park in Eminence for our wedding in October 2016, they joked that they’d been on every road in the alphabet.
As it turns out, this unique labeling system has its roots in agriculture! The first lettered highways started appearing on Missouri maps in the 1930s as an effort to provide all-weather roads for farmers not served by the state’s numbered highways. Letters were chosen to avoid confusion with the existing system.
In 1952, the Missouri Highway Department took over 12,000 miles of county roads, relieving local governments of maintenance costs. These “supplemental routes” were also assigned letters to distinguish them from the primary highways. This so-called “takeover program” had an ambitious goal: to bring state roads within two miles of 95 percent of all rural homes, schools, churches, cemeteries and stores. That goal was surpassed. Even today, many states don’t have that kind of coverage.
Coverage may be good, but condition isn’t. Unfortunately, Missouri’s roads are among the worst in the nation. Consider these letters: C-minus, the grade given to our infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and F, the rating assessed by the National Safety Council.
Why? Funding is a big part of the problem. At 33,884 miles, the Show-Me State’s highway system is the seventh-largest in the country yet ranks 47th in revenue raised per mile, according to a recent report by the 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force. This joint House-Senate panel found that the state lacks sufficient funding for essential repair and upkeep of roads and bridges, let alone funds to expand the system or meet new needs.
Highway revenue largely comes from user fees—collected from those who use it—and the largest source is the state fuel tax, which is 17 cents per gallon for all motor fuel. The task force has recommended increasing the tax by 10 cents for gas and 12 cents for diesel to pay for road and bridge work. That would generate an estimated $430 million, but that’s only about half of the $825 million annual shortfall facing Missouri transportation. If passed by lawmakers, the tax hike would need voter approval.
Missouri’s last fuel tax increase was in 1996, and the rate is the fifth-lowest in the nation. Due to inflation, the purchasing power that 17 cents had 22 years ago is now only 8 cents.
The state’s first motor fuel tax was levied in 1924 at 2 cents per gallon, which helped get “Missouri out of the mud” with those early farm-to-market roads. The tax was raised to 3 cents in 1952 and assisted in Missouri’s state lettered highway improvements. At that time, the fuel tax was the lowest in the nation. In proposing an increase to 5 cents in 1961, the state highway commission said, “Missouri is rapidly losing ground in trying to keep abreast of growing highway needs.” Sound familiar? We still face the same issue 57 years later.
Tax hikes for transportation have been thwarted several times in recent years. I get it. No one likes higher taxes. But funding for road improvements in Missouri is long overdue. In rural areas, especially, transportation funding should be a top priority. Those lettered roads are deteriorating rapidly, even as farm equipment and yields have gotten bigger. Producers need safe, accessible infrastructure to get their crops and livestock to market, and MFA needs reliable routes to haul grain and get applicators and delivery trucks to the farm.
Missouri Farm Bureau members and commodity groups have spoken out in favor of increasing state funding for transportation, as long as rural-urban distribution of dollars remains equitable and the funds actually go where they are promised.
President Trump also is pushing improvements for roads and bridges. In his State of the Union address, he said it is “time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” and announced a $1.5 trillion initiative toward that end. However, every federal dollar in such a plan would have to be leveraged by state and local spending.
Funding highway projects with a fuel tax makes sense, and it’s a relatively inexpensive proposal. If you fill up a 20-gallon tank once a week, a 10-cent increase would cost about an extra $100 per year. It’s worth paying a little more for gas so we’re not driving on poor-quality roads and bridges. It’s time for lawmakers to recognize that, too, and offer their constituents a chance to vote on a fuel tax increase this November. An investment in Missouri’s infrastructure is an investment in the future—for agriculture, for business and for every citizen.
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