The travel industry is at a national and international level now the largest single segment of commerce, and it is projected to be so well into the next century. In Missouri, and in multiple other states, tourism is a major generator of State and Federal tax revenue. Missouri's travel economy alone generates better than $1 billion in State and local tax revenue, and it is easily the second largest tax-generating segment, by SIC code, for Missouri's general revenue.
Branson, Missouri, population, 4,725 people -- you may have heard of our little town, sir -- was visited by 5.8 million guests in 1996. Our small region alone produces $1 billion of Missouri's $10 billion gross travel expenditures.
Mr. Chairman, as you can well picture, adequate and fair distribution of ISTEA funds is of prime importance to our region as it is to the entire State of Missouri.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has worked hard and fast to help the Branson/Ozarks area grow an adequate surface system capabilities. That work continues today as we speak. We, in Branson, were saddled in 1985 with a road system barely able to handle 2.5 million visitors. Explosive growth, nicely explosive growth, but explosive growth, nonetheless, in our region in 1991 through 1993, and the visitor count more than doubled to 5.8 million visitors that I mentioned earlier.
The Missouri Department of Transportation and local efforts were put in place to help overcome that huge bottleneck. Much has been done and much more needs to be done. The plans are ready, the equipment is ready, but we need the financial fuel in the tanks to make it go. And that fuel is an even-handed, fair and aggressive distribution to the states of ISTEA funds when it is finally reauthorized, exactly what your bill and Senator Chafee's bill and Senator Warner's bills have proposed.
The travel tourism industry is not the only user of a first-class transport system. Southwest Missouri is a major trucking hub serving all the Midwest. Missouri Department of Transportation has moved aggressively to build a system that will attract even more firms to the area.
And Senator Bond, you have been instrumental in working towards funding of improved mass-transit systems for Branson to make more effective use of ISTEA dollars.
Depending on the season, five to ten percent of all the visitors coming to southwest Missouri arrive at and through the Springfield/Branson Regional Airport. That airport, too, has applied for ISTEA assistance.
It comes to this. The transportation capabilities of our region and this entire State is like a huge water valve supplying life-giving water to crops. We cannot grow more until that valve is opened more, and MoDOT cannot open the valve more if other regions of the nation are receiving disproportionately higher ISTEA revenues versus Missouri's fair share. ISTEA reauthorization needs to be soon and equal.
I want to tell you a quick story about Mabel. Mabel doesn't know anything about what we are talking about here. She is a waitress in Branson. My wife and I were having lunch there at her restaurant one day not too long ago, and the place was really busy. Mable said, "Gee, isn't this wonderful?" And I said -- looking around the restaurant, and I said, "Yes, this really is." Mabel was talking about how really good it was for her because she said to us, "You know what's really good about this?" And we said, "No," thinking it was her tips. She said, "This is the first year I have never had to borrow money to pay my gas bill in order to get through the winter."
What Mabel didn't know was that the reason she was able to do that was because a surface system was starting to be in place to bring people to her region of the country. But without the proper reauthorization of ISTEA funds, Mabel may have to go back and borrow her gas or heating bill money for this winter.