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Senate bill would do away with Transportation Commission

December 10, 2002
By: Amy Menefee
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The State Transportation Commission would be abolished under a bill filed Monday in the Missouri Senate.

Sen.-elect and bill sponsor Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said the governor should take on more accountability for the state's road system.

"The governor would not be able to blame the Highway Commission for the sorry roads," Bartle said. "It would be squarely in the governor's lap."

His bill would place the Transportation Department under a director appointed by the governor, getting rid of the commission altogether.

"You have an unelected commission that is not accountable to anybody," Bartle said. "In an attempt to take politics out of the road system, we've taken accountability out of it."

The bipartisan commission was established in 1921. No more than three commissioners may be from the same party, and they serve staggered terms of six years. Members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The commission system has worked well, said Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, outgoing chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. Westfall said the commission serves as a needed buffer between regional interests. Without a commission, he said, the state might be less likely to adopt a needs-based plan of fund distribution -- meaning rural areas could lose.

"Governors tend to put roads where they got their votes," Westfall said.

Estil Fretwell, director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, said MoDOT's accountability problems stem from political pressure on the commission to shift money to the St. Louis area. He said he thinks the commission will correct that when it votes on a fund distribution plan in January.

"We've got people in place who are going to live up to the purpose of the commission," Fretwell said.

That purpose, in theory, is to be independent from political interests -- something Commissioner Barry Orscheln said they have achieved.

"I think the current system has kept politics out of road building," Orscheln said.

But Bartle said "gamesmanship" still exists in the system, and he said Gov. Bob Holden's surprise visit to the Transportation Commission in September was an example of that.

"The governor needs to stand and be counted on the condition of the roads," Bartle said.

He said closer ties between the governor and transportation leaders would be a good thing, regardless of who's in office. He said Missourians are looking for change in the area of transportation, but it won't come in the form of tax increases. Bartle attributed voters' overwhelming August defeat of a fuel tax hike to a lack of confidence in the Transportation Commission.

While he expects a version of his bill to be filed in the House as well, Bartle said he knows it may be one of the more drastic changes proposed in the upcoming legislative session.

"This will be probably the most progressive proposal you'll see," Bartle said. "But my sense is that something's going to change."