Missouri road projects dependent on new money

Monday, July 7, 2008 | 10:00 p.m. CDT; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — There’s no money to do it. But if there were, the Missouri Department of Transportation has identified dozens of major road and bridge projects to be completed as part of a potential 20-year plan.

Transportation officials don’t call it a wish list. They describe it as a need list.

The department last month projected Missouri’s transportation needs at $31.4 billion over the next couple decades — far more than its projected $12.6 billion in revenues.

Now the department is putting some specifics behind those figures.

In a new booklet, the department identifies 46 “critical” major road projects — estimated to cost $5.5 billion — which currently have no funding to get done. It also identifies 20 big bridges that would be among the first to be repaired or replaced, if the department had more money.

Chief Engineer Kevin Keith says the potential project list is a starting point for a public discussion about the state’s long-range transportation priorities. Some projects could be subtracted and others added or revised.

“We have found it is difficult to get Missourians interested in long-term transportation planning in general,” Keith said. But “they get pretty excited and engaged in the project that impacts them.

“This ought to get a reaction from folks: ’Yes, this is right,’ or, ’No, this is wrong,”’ he added. “What I hope this leads us to is a consensus on what’s right.”

Missouri recently has been on a road-paving binge, fueled largely by a 2006 ballot measure that authorized new bonding to be paid off by redirecting existing state tax revenues. However, the amount of money available for roads is expected to plummet in coming years as bond repayments rise and federal funding falls. Also, construction costs are expected to continue to go up.

Legislators convened a conference of Missouri’s transportation interest groups last month, including state and local government officials, construction contractors, highway safety advocates and various lobbyists. The message presented was that they first must agree on a transportation plan before asking voters for more money. Key to that plan is an agreement on a specific list of projects.

Of the Transportation Department’s $31.4 billion in projected needs, $12.9 billion would go toward taking care of the state’s existing highways and bridges. The new booklet identifies 4,500 miles of roads to be improved along with the 20 big bridge projects.

The needed list also includes $7.2 billion to rebuild Interstates 70 and 44 with eight lanes, including some dedicated solely to heavy trucks.

The interstate repairs are separate from the 46 specific major road projects. Those include the completion of several four-lane corridors across the state, including U.S. 63 running north and south and U.S. 50 running east and west.

Also included are improvements to transform the already four-lane U.S. 71 into the proposed Interstate 49 from Kansas City south to the Arkansas border and to widen U.S. 65 to six lanes in the Springfield area.

Some of the projects also were on a 15-year road plan adopted in 1992 that the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission ultimately dropped because it wasn’t affordable. Keith said some of those projects are on the latest lists because of merit and need, not simply because they weren’t completed the first time.

Also included in the 20-year proposal $2 billion for other modes of transportation besides roads and $3.8 million for projects that are regional priorities or contribute to economic development.

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