Transportation is worth the investment

DanOn the topic of Missouri’s transportation system, it’s easy to be a pessimist.

Over the decades, our state’s hilly geography and numerous rivers led to the construction of thousands of bridges. Today, 860 of them are in poor condition.

Our primary artery, Interstate 70, is crowded and expected to become even more congested in the coming years.

Road fatalities climbed in 2015 and 2016, a disturbing turn after years of decreases.

Those are just three of the most publicized issues. Leaders in every region of Missouri can easily point to a list of transportation projects that would improve both safety and economic connections.

With so many unmet needs, Missouri’s current transportation system is a problem for business. Our Missouri 2030 Gallup survey showed that only 37 percent of the state’s business leaders were satisfied with Missouri’s basic infrastructure. One 2016 study showed that businesses across the nation will lose $7 trillion in sales by 2025 if transportation infrastructure isn’t properly funded. The average family could lose more than $3,400 in disposable income per year.

While we can continue to search for creative ways to patch our current system, it’s been clear for years now that there is only one viable long-term fix: increased revenue.

One easy statistic paints the picture: Missouri has the seventh-largest transportation system in the nation but ranks 47th in funding per mile. Funding is the problem. We need more dedicated transportation tax revenue.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that not long ago our outlook was much worse. Transportation funding was projected to decline like it was falling off a cliff. For some routes, all but the most basic maintenance was going to end. New construction was essentially off the table.

However, Congress acted and provided assurance that the federal funding stream would continue in a more predictable fashion. Cheaper fuel prices in recent years have also led to more driving and, thus, an uptick in fuel tax revenues.

But all this gets us is a short-term assurance that our state will be able to continue to maintain our current system and target some select construction projects. We need much more.

In a way, Missouri’s greatest asset is our location. Our latitude puts us at the heart of a huge domestic economy. With our longitude, we are the crossroads of an entire continent.

But what is our location worth without good connections? And do connections even help if they are broken, outdated and underdeveloped?

We must act soon and invest in transportation.

In some ways, it’s easy to argue that we should have addressed this problem years ago. But an optimist might say it’s better that we’ve waited.

Just 10 years ago, the idea of seeing autonomous vehicles on I-70 within our lifetimes would have seemed far-fetched. But as you read this right now, a handful of cars are likely piloting themselves on that stretch. Many, many more are coming.

Likewise, most of us could not have foreseen today’s momentum building behind electric cars, alternative fuels and drone-based delivery systems.

If we would have invested in our transportation system 10 years ago, we would have a much better system for today. However, those investments may have been blind to the future.

Today, the future is starting to become clear.

And once we choose a plan for investing — something we must do soon — we can feel confident that the connections we build will be compatible with new ideas about transportation and ready to take us into the future.

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