The Missouri General Assembly adjourns in less than a month, and 2017 will be another year with no action to address the state’s long-term road-funding needs. The excuses are wearing thin.
The predicted fall-off in money for road construction forecast years ago has happened, blunted only some by a federal highway bill passed in late 2015. The Missouri Department of Transportation says its spending on roads and bridges was $2.5 billion in 2012 and fell to $2.04 billion in 2016. Spending is roughly flat on debt service and maintenance, but construction spending fell from $1.3 billion in 2012 to $818.9 million in 2016.
To be clear: MoDOT says safety comes first. Its inspectors are out making regular checks and, as needed, ordering emergency repairs or even replacements.
The examples are piling up. Emergency repairs to the Missouri 291 bridge over the Missouri River had traffic – 11,000 vehicles a day – down to one lane each way for months in 2015. Last year, the Grand Avenue bridge over I-670 in Kansas City had not just an emergency closure but had to be replaced. Again, months of hassle amid hasty planning.
And last month, an expansion joint on the I-70 bridge over the Missouri River near Rocheport needed emergency work and dropped eastbound traffic to one lane for a couple days. That bridge carries 34,000 vehicles a day, a quarter of them big trucks moving goods to market on Missouri’s biggest economic pipeline.
MoDOT has basically said to expect more of this, and one looming project could ripple across rush hour for much of the metro area. It’s the Buck O’Neil Bridge (formerly the Broadway Bridge), which connects downtown Kansas City to the Northland, which needs renovation or replacement, and which illustrates the dilemmas being forced upon MoDOT.
Ideally, the bridge would be replaced, and the old one would stay up during construction of the new one. That’s a minimal disruption to traffic. But MoDOT is essentially saying it has money for repairs but not for anything new and substantial. That means the Buck O’Neil Bridge would be closed for roughly 18 months, starting in a year or two. Think about the effect of that on commerce, let alone commuters’ nerves.
Republican leaders in the General Assembly have blamed former Gov. Jay Nixon for not leading well on this issue. But two years ago this spring – in the midst of the M-291 bridge mess – Nixon urged legislators to pass a gas tax increase of a penny and a half per gallon, not all that much but enough that the state would could fully match federal transportation money available to it. Nothing came of it.
Nothing has been a pattern for years. Now there’s a new governor, a Republican, and legislative leaders have said he would have a plan. I got a chance to ask Gov. Eric Greitens specifically about that last month, and he would not commit to offering a plan this year or in 2018. He said education and public safety come first.
Business leaders bring up this issue with some regularity, but Jefferson City isn’t hearing it. Four years ago legislators put a flawed gas tax plan on the ballot, and no one from the governor on down, except MoDOT, went out to sell it. The plan let truckers off scot-free, and the voters understandably, predictably, didn’t like it. Legislative leaders now use that to say the voters have spoken – end of discussion. Or they say legislators have no consensus around the gas tax, a sales tax or toll roads, so they can’t do anything. Then they said it was a matter of leadership by a Democratic governor. Now that excuse is gone, too.
Addressing this will take leadership, it will include unpopular choices, and someone will have to vigorously make the case to the voters. Who is going to step up and do that?
The MOD Pizza at 1112 N.E. Coronado Drive in Blue Springs is the third in the metro area. MOD’s idea is that customers choose their own toppings for pizza and salads that are made on the spot. Its grand opening is from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday. For the day, it’s giving all of the money from pizza sales to the Drumm Farm Center for Children in Independence. Drumm Farm supports children in foster care, as well as young adults recently out of the foster-care system. MOD says that’s in line with its values that also include giving people a second chance. Unlike many companies, it will hire people who have been incarcerated. … The Missouri Department of Economic Development reported Tuesday that unemployment in the state fell to 3.9 percent last month, the lowest in 16 years. That rate compares with 4.1 percent in February and 4.5 percent a year ago. Missouri’s jobless rate has been below the national average for the last two years. The state’s civilian labor force, seasonally adjusted, was 3.1 million in March, and 2.98 million of those people had jobs.
-- Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s business reporter and editor. Reach him at 816-350-6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org . He posts items about business on Twitter @FoxEJC.