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More funds top list of recommendations in State of Transportation address

January 28, 2004
By: Jonathan Moxey
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - More money topped the list of recommendations Missouri's Transportation Department director presented to a joint session of Missouri's legislature Wednesday.

"It is time to make constructive plans for the critical transportation needs of this state," said Transportation Department Director Henry Hungerbeeler in the first State of Transportation address.

"We cannot leave our transportation system in worse shape than we found it and pass our problems on to our children and grandchildren," he said.

Hungerbeeler resigned last December and will step down June 1.

Hungerbeeler cited inadequate funding as the cause for the state's deteriorating highways and bridges. Transportation funding from state general revenue has been cut 37 percent since 2002.

"Twenty five years ago, 17 percent of Missouri's state budget went to transportation. Now only 7.5 percent of state spending goes toward vital improvements to our highways, bridges, transit services and other modes of transportation," Hungerbeeler said.

No specific solution to increase agency funding was presented, but Hungerbeeler suggested ending the diversion of fuel tax funds to areas other than state highways and establishing toll roads as possible approaches. State law doesn't currently allow for the use of state highway funds for toll facilities.

Hungerbeeler said tolling would only be used on a few major projects and while it would not solve funding problems, it would help meet highway needs.

But Hungerbeeler's toll road idea was given little chance for passage by the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee. Sen. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles County, said tolling was an innovative idea that would allow for certain improvements that would not otherwise be feasible. But, Dolan said, "reforms" had to be made before moving forward.

"I can't see going to the people for revenue this year before I get the rest of the reforms myself and my colleagues are committed to," Dolan said. He added he couldn't support a specific toll road proposal before seeing it in writing.

Hungerbeeler asked for legislation that would prohibit open containers of alcohol in vehicles. Three percent of federal highway construction funds, approximately $12 million per year, are mandatorily diverted to safety programs because Missouri does not currently have a law regarding open containers.

Dolan said there was strong opposition both in the legislature and among Missourians to banning open containers.

"I don't see open container laws happening until the federal government threaten our dollars completely," Dolan said.

He added that federal dollars spent on safety is money well spent.

"I don't have a problem spending $12 million a year on safety," Dolan said. "It's a worthwhile expense."

Hungerbeeler also backed a proposed primary seat belt law that would allow law enforcement officers to pull motorists over and ticket them solely for not wearing a seat belt.

He told the legislators every version of the federal transportation reauthorization bill currently being considered in Congress contains financial incentives for primary safety belt laws and Missouri could miss millions in additional funds if a law is not passed.

Dolan supported the primary seat belt law but expressed concern for civil and individual rights that may be violated.

Safety was named as the department's number one objective, according to Hungerbeeler.

"Too many people are dying on Missouri's roads," he said. "If we lost that many people in airplane crashes, it would be totally unacceptable." Hungerbeeler then outlined a plan to significantly reduce the number of traffic fatalities by 2008.

Hungerbeeler also called for the Highways and Transportation Commission to be left in its current form. He said the independent commission has "served the people of Missouri well for over 80 years by limiting political influence and parochialism in transportation decision-making."

The commission, named by the governor, enjoys constitutional independence from both the governor and the legislature. That level of independence is the target of a constitutional amendment filed by Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County. The bill would abolish the committee and transfer its powers to a director who would serve at the pleasure of the governor.

"People in our state don't have confidence in our governing structure," Bartle said. "And until we change our governing structure it is highly unlikely that the voters are going to entrust us with more money, which is what we really need."

But Dolan sides with Hungerbeeler in endorsing the department's independence, but said he wouldn't mind it having a director appointed by the governor.

"The reason to keep the commission independent is the diversity of Missouri. There are a lot of people who disagree. I can move forward with reform and regain the trust of the people with the existing structure. I've always said 'I just want to remodel the room, I don't want to wreck the whole house'," Dolan said. "The commission and the highway director can do more than a politician any time for reform."