A few months ago, St. Charles Road in northeast Columbia was full of cracks, rumbles and potholes. The road had not been treated since the 1990s when it was originally paved.
In July, Boone County began to rehabilitate a portion of the road from Battle High School to Route Z. Its completion was celebrated this week.
The project cost the county $244,026.
But St. Charles Road is a tiny fraction of the 770 miles of roads Boone County must continue to maintain. Last year, about $18 million was budgeted to keep up county roads and bridges, and more than 80 percent of the funding comes from a half-cent sales tax that voters first passed in 1993.
It's time for voters to decide again if they want to approve the sales tax for another 10 years, starting October 2018. The issue is on the Aug. 8 ballot as Proposition 1, and it is projected to generate about $14 million each year if it passes.
Boone County Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson said the tax is integral to the upkeep of county roads and bridges.
"A community is built on your transportation infrastructure," she said. "It shouldn't be even a question whether or not we need solid funding for our roads and bridges."
The citizen-based Yes for Good Roads Committee has been promoting the sales tax with yard signs and public forums. Chaired by former Gov. Roger Wilson, the campaign has received nearly $8,000 in contributions so far.
At least 42 organizations and public officials have endorsed the measure, including the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the Boone County Farm Bureau board of directors, Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill and Columbia Mayor Brian Treece.
No formal opposition has emerged to defeat the measure.
"Voters have voted yes three times in 25 years," Wilson said about the road tax. "It has a good run going. I think not only can we go ahead and do what's right this time, but we can also set the stage for 10 years from now if we do this correctly."
Voters first approved a five-year, half-cent sales tax in 1993 so the county could pave about 50 miles of gravel roads.
The sales tax was approved in Boone County's first mail-in election. Organized by recently resigned Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, it drew far more voters than other special elections at the time. The vote was highly contested: Less than 4 percent separated the two sides.
The deal came with a county rollback on the property tax levy, from 29 cents to 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
Until then, the tax on property was the primary source of county funding to build and maintain roads and bridges. The sales tax was promoted as a way to distribute the burden among residents and visitors.
From 1994 to 1998, the county collected $35.6 million in sales-tax revenues and paved 58 miles of gravel roads all over the county.
The sales tax quickly became an indispensable part of the county budget. Voters renewed the deal for 10 more years in 1997, and again in 2007. Since it was initially approved through the end of 2016, the tax has generated about $240 million for Boone County.
The tax has been used to pave gravel roads and maintain existing pavement. It also funds maintenance of the county's 127 bridges plus scores of culverts, as well as snow and ice removal during the winter. Last year, the county Public Works Department bought and used 1,258 tons of salt to deal with snowstorms.
During the early 1990s, when paving roads was the priority, the county postponed road maintenance. But paving over gravel and maintaining the new roads proved to be expensive and complicated.
The county turned its attention away from gravel roads when the cost of maintaining the new roads started to put a strain on the budget.
"They have not been able to be aggressive in paving roads because the money just doesn't go as far as you would like it to go," said Stan Shawver, director of Boone County Resource Management Department.
Shawver, who supervises the design and engineering of the county's major road repair projects, said paving roads must take into account additional cost, such as drainage construction, utility relocation and negotiation with property owners for rights of way.
"Every road you improve, you have a higher level of maintenance that goes with that as well," Shawver said. "While the (paved) surface lasts longer, maintaining it becomes more expensive. Extremely expensive."
In the nearly 20 years since 1998, the county has paved only about 80 miles of roads.
The county Public Works Department gets hundreds of requests for road maintenance from residents who complain about cracked pavement, potholes and loose gravel. Last year, Public Works crews spent 5,132 hours completing 587 out of 685 public requests for maintenance, according to 2016 Road and Bridge Annual Report.
But before a resident complains, the county systematically maintains and repairs roads based on traffic counts, road surface types, road geometry and maintenance cost.
About 61 percent – 468 miles – of the 770 miles of county roads are gravel, 25 percent are asphalt, 10 percent are limestone chip seal and 4 percent are concrete.
Maintaining gravel roads is as simple as resurfacing and grading. The county spends about $1 million purchasing rocks every year, mostly used to maintain gravel roads. Last year, Public Works crews reapplied nearly 115,000 tons of gravel to Boone County rural roads.
John Sam Williamson, who lives in an unincorporated part of Boone County southwest of Columbia, said most of the roads around his farm are gravel. He said they don't have as much traffic as roads in the city do, but they are still vital paths for agricultural machinery, public safety vehicles and even some school buses.
Maintaining paved roads is a more complicated process. Three years or so after construction, a paved road undergoes a chip-seal process that protects the road for about seven years.
Within a year, however, asphalt emulsion is applied to the surface of the road to extend the life cycle of the pavement. Topping pavement with asphalt emulsion is repeated every four years until the chip seal needs to be replaced.
That process keeps overall costs down. For example, about 0.4 miles of Oakland Church Road between State Route B and North Brown Station Road was first paved with asphalt between 1996 and 2002. It cost $60,000 to add 2-inch asphalt overlay in 2010. Since then, periodic maintenance on that small stretch of road has cost a little under $17,000.
However, because St. Charles Road had not been maintained consistently, the one-time upgrade was much more expensive. Pavement rehabilitation was needed on the .75 miles of road that was repaired this year. The project cost the county about $244,000.
A pavement rehabilitation process called full-depth reclamation had to be used on the severely distressed asphalt road. This process involves pulverizing and combining existing pavement, gravel base and sub grade with cement and water, then adding an asphalt overlay. The newly built road is expected to last more than 10 years.
Much of this work must be done by outside contractors, which can be more expensive than using county employees. In addition, the cost of supplies has increased significantly.
In 1998, for example, asphalt cost about $18 per ton. The price has since increased to $74 per ton. Similarly, rocks cost $2.50 per ton on average back in 1998. Now they cost $8.50 per ton.
"Pricing went through the roof on everything," said county Public Works Director Greg Edington.
The road tax has been a boost for smaller cities and towns within Boone County. Since the tax was renewed by voters in 2007, nearly $24 million has been funneled into local government projects.
When the revenue-sharing program first started, municipalities received project-based grants through applications. Since 2011, the amount allocated to each municipality has been roughly based on population.
In the past 10 years, Columbia has received nearly $19 million through this county program. The city spent more than $11 million of that to repair Scott Boulevard. The county awarded Columbia $2.3 million for 2017, about 85 percent of the total of $2.7 million distributed to local governments in the county.
Ashland's annual share of the county road tax — $140,000 to $150,000 — nearly doubles the city's capital improvement budget. The city has received a total of about $1 million in the last decade. In 2014, Boone County and Ashland together spent roughly $370,000 to perform full-depth reclamation on Angel Lane.
The county road tax has also helped fund overlay projects and sidewalk constructions in Centralia, which has received $110,000 to $140,000 from the program every year.
Hallsville, which has been given $40,000 to $45,000 through the program every year, was able to pave all of its roads with asphalt thanks to the county grant, according to State Rep. Cheri Toalson-Reisch, former mayor and clerk of Hallsville.
Local governments, including Ashland and Centralia, have passed resolutions to support the Aug. 8 ballot issue.
"Proposition 1 is incredibly important for local municipalities," Ashland Mayor Gene Rhorer said.
Centralia Administrator Matt Harline agreed: "It's hugely important for the operation to have this funding source. It would be very difficult to replace it with anything else."
He added that the revenue-sharing program also helps even out the sales-tax concentration in Columbia. A funding formula based on population distributes the money by need rather than by where it's collected at the cash register, Harline said.
The county's decision to roll back the property tax in 1993 and rely on the sales tax has received a positive response the past two decades, county commissioners say. It was extended twice, with more than 80 percent voter approval the last time it was on the ballot.
With the loss of sales tax revenue to online commerce, however, some residents are starting to worry it might not be the most sustainable source of revenue for the county's road and bridge fund in the next few years.
Southern District Commissioner Fred Parry, who has been a strong supporter of the deal, said sales-tax revenue is not growing at the same rate as the increasing cost of maintaining county roads.
Contrary to the mounting costs of maintaining public infrastructure, sales-tax revenues grew less than 2 percent in 2015 and 2016, County Auditor June Pitchford said. Back in the '90s, sales-tax revenue growth was as aggressive as 12 percent.
"As e-commerce continues to grow, all governmental entities that rely on sales taxes to fund basic governmental services will face significant challenges," Pitchford said.
Thompson said declining sales tax revenue is on the radar of many local communities because it greatly impacts their ability to function and unfairly hurts local businesses.
"It really creates an extraordinary benefit to folks like Amazon or any of those companies that don't have physical presence in the community," she said.
Pitchford said she believes this is an issue that needs to be battled on the federal and state level. The state legislature has repeatedly introduced bills to simplify sales-tax law and make it easier for online retailers to collect and remit state and local sales tax. No bill has been passed.
"In my opinion, this is a tax-compliance issue that needs to be solved," Pitchford said. "Instead of increasing the tax burden on taxpayers (by increasing property taxes), we need to close the tax compliance loophole on e-commerce activity."
Some have argued sales tax is not the most equitable way to fund the county, but Scott Charton, spokesperson for YES For Good Roads, said it is a better way to capture county road users.
"Boone County is a Midwest crossroads for business, higher education, tourism, health care, athletics and agriculture," he said.
That means hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Boone County use county roads, Charton said. The sales tax allows visitors to help pay for maintaining county roads and bridges, not just the property owners.
Columbia, for example, expects more than 100,000 visitors for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse viewing this year, said Megan McConachie, strategic communications manager with Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Even as voters go to the polls next week to decide if they want to extend the road tax, crews and contractors continue to maintain county roads.
• In mid-July, Innovative Roadway Solutions began sealing 52 miles of roads for the county.
• West of St. Charles Road, another county contractor, Emery Sapp & Sons, started rehabilitation work on distressed concrete streets in the Lake of the Woods subdivision. The crew will completely remove existing pavement and install new asphalt.
• Other projects for the year include 120,000 square yards of preservation chip seal and 85,000 square yards of asphalt overlay.
Thompson said it's important to keep county roads up to snuff when Boone County has a thriving economy built on transportation infrastructure. She said roads and bridges are like the vascular system in a body.
"You want your blood network in your body working well, and you want your transportation infrastructure in your community to be working well," she said.
"Products can't come here without good roads and bridges. People can't work here without good roads and bridges."