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Transportation funding big issue for lawmakers

March 13, 2001
By: Nick White
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Warning of a grim future for Missouri's roads, the Department of Transportation is pleading with state lawmakers for more funding.

The state's roads, bridges and other means of transportation have taken center stage in state politics. Gov. Bob Holden says Missouri's ailing transportation system is one of the priorites for his adminstration.

Today, the House Transportation Committee will debate what transporation bill to endorse, said Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, who sits on the committee.

At least 10 funding bills now linger in the state House and Senate in addition to Holden's plan, and many of them would generate hundreds of millions in revenue through tax and fee increases.

Responding to what some state lawmakers have called a "crisis," Holden has issued what he hopes is a solution, a "total transportation" plan that would generate an additional $620 million.

But the plan does not mention funding for specific projects beyond a handful of broad allocations. MoDOT officials said the $620 million called for in Holden's plan is less than what the state needs to maintain existing roads and build new ones.

"I've said it all along," said Henry Hungerbeeler, executive director of the department. "It's closer to $1 billion a year."

Even a billion dollars would only pay for a fraction of fixing one of the department's biggest concerns -- a "crumbling" Interstate 70 -- said Scott Smith, a senior vice president for Kansas City-based HNTB, an architectural firm that conducted the ongoing I-70 Improvement Study.

"There are significant stretches where the pavement is in fair or poor condition," Smith said.

Smith said the approximate price tag of rebuilding one mile of I-70 is $10 million, and the department has 199 miles of I-70 to rebuild.

"The problem is like when you've got a car that starts going bad," said Charles Nemmer, director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center at MU. "It might still look nice on the outside, but it's wearing out."

I-70 was built in 1965 and was supposed to last 20 years, Smith said. A MoDOT public affairs director, Bob Brendle, agreed that I-70 deserves immediate attention.

"The need is extreme," Brendle said. "Right now, there are not funds for I-70...All you have to do is drive it and see stretches that are deteriorating."

Statistics show room Missouri has plenty of room for improvement.

* Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 states in quality of roads, according to a study released by the Road Information Program last week.

* In revenue received per mile, Missouri ranked 46th in 1998.

* Illinois, comparatively, spent more than five times per mile of road than Missouri that year, according to department information.

* Missouri's 32,000 miles of highway rank seventh in the United States, while Holden said at least 5,000 of those miles are in disrepair.

The department, which receives about 60% of the Missouri's transportation money, has said the gap between funding and necessity will continue to grow steadily. The time is now, the governor said.

"It's the right thing to do," Holden said.

One funding plan came from Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County.

"We have a looming downturn in our funding," said Loudon. "Basically, we need money for roads."

Loudon had two joint resolutions to boost transportation funding. One would designate about $170 million of general revenue specifically for transportation, and the other would authorize the creation of toll roads.

"I'm trying to package them and get the roads done in this state without raising taxes," Loudon told the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday.

A House bill sponsored by Rep. Gary Wiggins, D-New Cambria, is similar to what Holden proposed. It would raise the state's gasoline tax by two cents per gallon and the sales tax by three-fourths of a cent per dollar.

"That's the one to watch...the one the House has picked as its transportation bill," said House Speaker Rep. Jim Kreider, D-Nixa. "Wiggins' bill is a good place to start."

Holden's plan combined tax and fee hikes from other bills. When he announced it March 6, it immediately hit opposition from state Republican lawmakers and rural groups.

"The state government has reneged," said Estil Fredwell, the public affairs director for the Missouri Farm Bureau, which represents 92,000 rural families. "We're against getting more revenue until we have the confidence of the people."

One transportation funding bill has already been declared dead by the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia. It proposed tax and gasoline hikes and planned increasing revenue by $650 million.

But, Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, who controlled the Senate Transportation Committee and Mathewson's bill, said rural Missourians did not want a tax increase. Mathewson resigned from the committee a month later.

Mathewson said he doubts Holden's plan would pass Westfall's committee.

"If he wouldn't do my bill, why would he do the Governor's?" asked Mathewson.

Westfall agreed with Mathewson, and he said he wants to pass a transportation bill next year.

"I'm not going to rush into a decision that has a major impact on the state of Missouri," Westfall said.