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Missouri's transportation leaders short on solutions

November 22, 2002

By: Amy Menefee

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's transportation revenue efforts have stalled on the road.

The Transportation Department lacks enough money to maintain the current highway system and no one has come up with a plan for getting more funds or cutting the number of highways maintained by the state.

MoDOT, the Transportation Commission and state legislators haven't had much to offer since voters' resounding August defeat of a fuel tax increase.

So what's next?

Shut up and wait awhile, says outgoing Senate Transportation Committee chairman Morris Westfall, R-Halfway.

"As long as it's politically expedient for legislators to beat up on them," MoDOT and the commission won't have a chance to prove their progress, Westfall said.

Voters demanded to see that progress when they refused to direct any more tax money to transportation, Westfall said.

"I think the people gave us a message that they don't want any movement until accountability and credibility are there," Westfall said. "The state can't wait years and years, but you've got to wait. There's not much for the legislature to do for the next few years."

Suggestions for new revenue have included giving city and county monies to MoDOT and issuing more bonds to finance road projects. But both ideas have strong critics. The Transportation Commission reached a consensus in October that bonds are not a feasible source of new revenue after MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler warned that further bonding could jeopardize the state's credit rating.

In the meantime, MoDOT will be lobbying the legislature for authority to bring in more money -- with ideas to generate just millions for a system that needs about $1 billion per year.

Toll authority is a high priority, as legislation is needed to allow state toll financing of road and bridge projects. Another outgoing Transportation Committee member, Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, said voter education will likely be a factor in gaining support for toll projects, because they would require voter approval. Hungerbeeler said tolling is not a solution in itself, but merely a step toward financing some projects.

MoDOT will also ask legislators to pass a new open container law. According to MoDOT figures, Missouri's failure to comply with federal open container regulations will cost the department $10.4 million in federal funds this year. These funds must be transferred to highway safety programs to compensate for Missouri's lack of compliance.

In the absence of state funds for the department, Hungerbeeler says he wants to obtain more federal funding.

Some at MoDOT are hoping Sen. Kit Bond will be able to "steer more money to MoDOT," said MoDOT spokesman Jim Coleman.

In January, Bond will take the chair of the U.S. Senate subcommittee in charge of writing the nation's highway bill, which is rewritten every six years.

"This is the blueprint for building highways and allocating funds for the whole country," said Bond spokesman Ernie Blazar. "The Senator's goal is to make sure Missouri does well. He knows Missouri roads real well and knows how much help they need."

Coleman said the department may be looking to get more of the discretionary funds available for federal distribution -- funds that aren't earmarked for specific use. But there's a catch. Federal funds are subject to state matching requirements. Add Hungerbeeler said that is a problem.

"Our current projections show that we will not be able to match federal funds sometime in the next decade," Hungerbeeler said.

For now, the Transportation Commission must distribute existing funds, and they may soon adopt a new formula for allocation. Commission Chairman Ollie Gates said they will decide on a system of fund distribution at a Jan. 10 meeting in Jefferson City.

MoDOT has presented the commission with four funding options. Each uses slightly varied criteria to determine needy areas, but MoDOT's overall focus is going more in a needs-based direction.

"We're trying to have something that is more objective than rural/urban," Hungerbeeler said. "We're trying to decide the meaning of the word 'need.'"

MoDOT is also launching an outreach effort to include more local influence in transportation management, Hungerbeeler said.

Before the commission makes its decision, members will hear input from regional planning commissions and metropolitan planning organizations as well as business interests, Coleman said. Plans are under way for a statewide summit intended to gather stakeholders in Jefferson City on Jan. 6.

As debate continues about whose responsibility it is to generate ideas for revenue, MoDOT is calling attention to areas of internal improvement. At a Nov. 20 report to the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, Hungerbeeler trumpeted administrative cost cutting and good grades from recent audits. He has maintained that the department's efforts are ongoing and not in response to Gov. Bob Holden's sharp September critique of MoDOT and the commission.

Westfall said Missouri's transportation leaders are moving forward to establish credibility, and they are held to a tough standard.

"They're more accountable than the average state agency," Westfall said. "But they're in a fishbowl. They're the only state agency that every taxpayer sees at work every day."