Road Construction Headed for a Cliff Without New Money

Mon March 12, 2007 - Midwest Edition

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) Missouri’s transportation system is “improving dramatically,” due to a funding bump but is headed toward a cliff unless the state finds a way to offset a funding drop-off in three years, the Department of Transportation (DOT) director said Feb. 7.

“We are in the midst of a bubble for funding of highway construction,” Transportation Chief Pete Rahn told lawmakers in his annual State of Transportation speech. But “from the top of this peak we can observe a very low valley.”

He said Missouri’s $1.3 billion road construction program “drops off a cliff in 2010 and plummets” to $569 million, slightly less than the level before voters approved a 2004 constitutional amendment authorizing new highway bonds and directing more existing tax revenues to the department.

As a result of that ballot measure, the department recently completed a project to repave and make safety improvements to the state’s busiest 2,200 mi. of roads. Last month, the transportation commission approved a plan to bring 85 percent of the state’s 5,600 mi. of major highways into good condition by 2012. Another project seeks to improve 800 bridges during that time.

But “in order to rebuild our largest, busiest interstates, to improve our lettered routes, to impact growing urban and suburban congestion, to truly move transportation forward in Missouri, we must find a way to direct more dollars to our roads and other modes of transportation,” Rahn said.

Legislation by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer would ask voters to approve a 1 cent sales tax from 2009-2018 to rebuild and expand Interstates 70 and 44 to four lanes in each direction. Two lanes would be devoted to commercial trucks and the other two to the rest of the vehicles. The devoted tax would free up more existing money to go to other roads.

Stouffer said his goal is to get the tax increase in the August 2008 ballot, and he doesn’t intend to bring the measure to a legislative vote this year. If Missourians don’t approve more money for roads, they may discover too late that the highways are crumbling underneath them, he said.

“Infrastruture’s a lot like a frog you put in a cold pan of water and heat up: You’re dead before you realize it,” said Stouffer, R-Napton.

Without embracing any particular funding proposal, Rahn also supported the construction of separate truck lanes on I-70 and I-44. He said that could be accomplished as part of a $7.2 billion improvement plan, which currently has no funding.

The State of the Transportation speech was mandated under a 2003 law as one of several steps to improve the department’s accountability to legislators and the public. Since then, the department’s director and six-member governing board have changed and lawmakers have generally praised the department for its improvements.

Some lawmakers now regret mandating the annual speech. Fewer than half the 34 senators remained in the House chamber while Rahn spoke for more than 30 minutes, and a few of the 163 House members also left. Stouffer has proposed to abolish the speech before next year, even though the law requiring it expires after the 2008 speech. But House Transportation Committee Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, wants the speeches to continue.

Besides stressing the need for more money in the near future — a point that has become an annual reminder in the speech — Rahn reiterated several department priorities, including legislation allowing police to pull over motorists for not wearing seat belts.

Police currently can issue seat belt tickets only after stopping motorists for other violations.

Primary seat belt enforcement bills have died in the Legislature in the past. But Rahn praised 39 of the 163 House members who are co-sponsoring this year’s bill, numbered House Bill 90 in recognition of how many lives per year the department claims would be saved.

St. Onge said the seat belt legislation has a strong chance of passing this year, due largely to a grass-roots effort by supporters between last session and this one.

“I’ve never seen so much buzz or excitement on this issue,” St. Onge said.

Rahn said the department also is striving to improve other modes of transportation. For example, the state is helping build a 5,000-ft. (1,524 m) runway in Branson West, the seventh new airport built by the agency since 1990.

“Unfortunately, with current funding, we cannot say, ’completed as promised’ to becoming a total transportation department,” Rahn said. “We are called a department of transportation, but we are funded like a highway department.”

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