As the ballot-issue petition process gets underway to submit a transportation sales tax to Missouri voters, I’ve wondered what my European friends would think.
While southern Europe is criticized for refusing to pay for the government services Europeans enjoy, that would not seem to be the case about highway systems.
Europe’s highways are superb. There’s a quality of convenience, pavement, construction and maintenance that far exceeds anything we have in Missouri for our major highways.
Driving in Europe is a pleasure. It makes me feel a bit like how I suspect someone from a poverty-stricken developing country feels when first encountering the wealth of the United States.
Yet, here’s the surprise: Europeans do pay for it, big time.
Taxes help make fuel costs at least four times higher than we pay. One friend told me that even the taxes on his car doubled the purchase cost. Toll roads are everywhere.
And toll roads in Europe are not cheap. To drive from the Atlantic side of southern France to the Mediterranean coast on the Spanish border last summer cost more than $50 in tolls for a distance only a bit longer than St. Louis to Kansas City.
Would you pay more than $120 in a combined cost of gasoline and tolls to drive across Missouri? And then another $120 to return?
That high cost of driving has an added benefit. It makes mass transportation a financially attractive alternative.
When it comes to financing our highways, Missouri actually is closer to the “borrow-and-spend” mentality that we attribute to Europe.
For us, it’s borrowed money that is paying for the recent improvements you’ve seen on Missouri’s major highways.
It was part of a plan promoted by former Transportation Department Director Pete Rahn. His idea was to float bonds in hopes that the improvements would cause Missourians to be more willing to pay more in taxes or tolls for their highway system.
But Rahn quit to take a private sector job in the highway construction industry before presenting any specific plan for increasing revenue.
Shortly before leaving, he acknowledged to a legislative committee that his department lacked funds to maintain those improvements that had been financed by bonds.
Beyond a willingness to pay for it, there are other major differences between highways in Europe and Missouri.
As a national magazine article noted a while back, highway construction and repair contracts in Europe are awarded for entire highway projects, unlike Missouri whose laws limit most projects to small stretches of highways.
Those huge contracts finance a higher level of technology in developing highways with greater durability.
Beyond well-financed large highway construction efforts, Europe has an extensive array of public-private partnerships to build and operate many of those toll roads.
While Europe’s toll roads stand out, when you get off the beaten path, you’ll find fewer major highways than in Missouri. Two-lane meandering roads with narrow shoulders dominate many areas of the countryside. In small towns, some roads are not much more than narrow lanes in which you sometimes have to fold in your side mirrors to pass through.
I sense that allows European governments to concentrate more of their efforts and resources on the high-volume highways.
It would be unfair of me if I did not point out that Europe still has grid-lock traffic jams just like we do in Missouri. In fact, it can be far worse than you could ever imagine — particularly during the first weekend in August when it seems that every living soul in Paris is on the toll roads heading to the beaches.
As for the Missouri sales tax proposal, that would not quite be the same approach as Europe’s “drivers pay for it” standard. As critics here in Missouri have complained, the sales tax increase would be paid by everyone — including those who do not drive at all.