Commission leader: 'State must come to the table' on highway funding

Jeff Fox

The head of the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission said Tuesday the state continues to face pressing problems with its roads, including Interstate 70.

Stephen R. Miller, in an appearance in Kansas City, pointed out that Missouri has the seventh most miles of highways to take care of among the 50 states but also ranks 47th in funding. The state has among the lowest gas taxes in the country.

Highway funding for the Missouri Department of Transportation has fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, and the agency has closed offices and cut hundreds of employees. Still, MoDOT is “unable to preserve it (the road system) in its current condition,” he said.

Miller added that 60 percent of the state’s jobs are near I-70 but the state has no plan to rebuild it, which MoDOT engineers say is years overdue.

The General Assembly convenes in three weeks, but legislators for years have balked at such options as toll roads, sales taxes or an increased gas tax. Miller also noted divisions in the state – Kansas City and St. Louis, southern and northern Missouri, even splits within majority Republicans in Jefferson City – and said those stand in the way of getting things done.

“And all of this represents the very real possibility of gridlock,” he said.

He stressed that MoDOT can get roads and bridges back in good shape if given the chance.

“We can execute on it if we have the resources to do it,” he said.

MoDOT’s new director, Patrick McKenna, said the discussion about roads is also a discussion about what kind of communities the state wants to have. He said every bridge with load restrictions is, in essence, a tax paid by drivers, and he said it’s not good for commerce.

McKenna and Miller said there’s some good news in the passage of a five-year federal transportation bill, the first in years. Congress had been passing stop-gap measures for years, which kept federal funds flowing to the states but also, officials said, prevented effective long-term planning.

“It’s great that we have a five-year funding bill,” McKenna said. “That’s something that we’ve been in need of.”

The federal bill has a modest increase in funding, and states rely on that heavily for big projects such as work on interstates. Washington typically picks up about 80 percent of those costs.

But Miller pointed out that local governments spend the bulk of transportation money and said that’s a key piece.

“The state of Missouri has to come to the table itself,” McKenna said.

He added, “We have to start thinking about what kind of infrastructure we want for the future.”