I recently testified on Missouri Farm Bureau’s behalf in front of the Missouri Transportation Task Force, a group of Missouri legislators and citizens looking at the challenges facing Missouri transportation. Missouri Farm Bureau policy supports an increase in funding for highways and bridges, and I was able to talk about the deterioration of rural Missouri roads, and how bad roads are making it more difficult to move farm products to market and safely transport rural kids to school. Some of the discussion on the task force has been about the fuel tax, and I told the group that our members agree that the best way to fund roads and bridges is the traditional way, with an increase in the fuel tax.

The Task Force heard from plenty of other groups during their St. Louis hearing. They heard about the importance of the OATS program to older Missourians, and the challenges with funding in that program. Since my mind, to my great regret, travels toward the irreverent, I thought the OATS representatives might want to quit saying that they were responsible for 14 million one way trips for their customers. I’m still worried about how all those folks got home.

The group heard from a representative of Uber, the ride-sharing company. Uber is experimenting with driverless cars, and fully expects that the future, at least for urban residents, will be a series of autonomous cars picking up riders and efficiently moving them hither and yon. This would be great for the environment and save money, as many of us wouldn’t even own a car, but would wreak havoc with the traditional ways of funding highways and take all of the fun out of Saturday night dates.

At least one St. Louis member of the commission is worried about the split of transportation funding in the state, concerned that dollars should follow population and that urban areas aren’t receiving their fair share. A representative of the Missouri Department of Transportation pointed out that rural Missourians on average annually drive 50% more miles than urban residents and typically drive larger vehicles, so the miles per gallon in rural areas tends to be lower. In other words, per capita spending on fuel taxes is greater in rural areas. The present funding allocation between rural and urban parts of the state has been in place for several years, takes into account population and miles driven, and seems to be working well. It would be a mistake and a distraction for the committee to renew regional sniping while our roads and bridges are in crisis.

At least one member of the committee is convinced that nothing need be done, besides returning the responsibility for lettered roads to counties and to spend an ever increasing torrent of general revenue on roads, bridges, and mass transit. The counties, of course, have no money for such a scheme, and increases in general revenue are like unicorns, wonderful in every way but very hard to find.

To talk of unicorns when bridges crumble and roads collapse is a mistake, and even worse it will cost us more in the long run. We have a responsibility to maintain what our fathers, mothers, and grandparents have left us, whether that be a farm, a business, a home, or the 7th largest statewide transportation system in the nation. It’s time to do the truly conservative thing, and conserve and improve what we have, with an eye toward leaving an even better transportation system to our children.