Roads are about more than hitting that annoying pothole on your way to work. They are a key part of a state or region’s economic vitality, as are transportation systems – planes, trains and automobiles – as a whole.

Roads are about more than hitting that annoying pothole on your way to work. They are a key part of a state or region’s economic vitality, as are transportation systems – planes, trains and automobiles – as a whole.

Sooner or later, the state of Missouri has to make up its mind on what kind of transportation system it’s going to have and therefore what kind of economic future we hope for. Will more goods be shipped by rail? Yes. Should more people move around the same way, getting at least some cars off the roads? Sure, and it might happen. Will the skies continue to get more crowded? Count on it.

But the fundamental fact is highway traffic is the biggest part of this, and it’s going to increase over the long term. There will be more cars, and there will be more big trucks hauling goods from manufacturer to market. Will Missouri go back to the bad old days of “worst highways in the country”? Maybe not, but much of the state’s backlog of work remains to be addressed.

“We as a country and as a state are going to have to make the decision about (whether) we want a transportation system that can support a vibrant, modern economy, or are we willing to settle for less?” Missouri Department of Transportation Director Pete Rahn told a legislative committee this week.

State funding for roads is set to fall sharply in a few years. The state is spending $1.5 billion on roads this year, a figure boosted by federal stimulus money that has to be substantially spent by the end of 2010. Also, bond money from a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2004 will be falling off. And people have been driving less during this sour economy, which means less in gas taxes, which go for roads. Who knows when that will turn around?

Bottom line: In five years, the state could be spending less than one-third of what it’s currently spending on roads, a level that officials describe as little more than filling potholes. It’s not enough for any meaningful number of new major roads or the rebuilding of major roads that need it.

One key legislator told Rahn the state needs consensus before going to the voters to ask for what everyone involved acknowledges is needed: a stable and adequate source of funding. That sounds fine, but it’s the same line we’ve heard from Jefferson City for a decade now. Little has substantially changed in that time. The state has turned to some one-time tricks – such as the 800-worst-bridge contract – to address the most dire issues. It has modestly improved the quality of some major roads; others cry out for attention. We still haven’t decided whether to muddle through or start making strategic, planned investments in our state’s economy.