Missouri highway backers looking to grasp federal money

Thursday, January 15, 2009 | 4:36 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — State officials are seeking to change Missouri's highway construction laws to grasp as much money as possible from a federal economic stimulus package.

In Washington, House Democrats outlined an estimated $825 billion stimulus package Thursday that includes $30 billion for highway construction and $10 billion for rail and mass transit projects.

In Missouri, some lawmakers are backing a bill that would allow the Missouri Department of Transportation to award single contracts for bidders to handle both the design and construction of roads or bridges.

The transportation department says a design-build law could cut the time it takes to complete some big projects in half while also reducing their costs. If Missouri has more projects ready to go, transportation officials believe the state could be in a better position to get future federal money.

Put another way: "It's an old farm saying, you want to be the first snout in the trough," said Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, chairman of the newly created House Infrastructure and Transportation Funding Committee.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he created the panel at the request of U.S. Sen. Kit Bond to deal with the potential federal infrastructure stimulus money.

The Missouri Department of Transportation already has identified $510 million in projects that could be awarded within six months of passage of a federal economic stimulus package and an additional $290 million in projects that could be significantly under way in 2009, if the state gets that much money.

There has been discussion in Washington that states that don't act quickly enough could have a portion of their highway stimulus money redistributed to other states that have additional road projects ready to go, said Jay Wunderlich, MoDOT's governmental affairs director. There also has been discussion of another federal economic stimulus package with more highway funding in a year or so, he said.

Under either scenario, "we need to be prepared just in case," said MoDOT Chief Engineer Kevin Keith.

Typically, Missouri road and bridge projects are handled in separate phases. First, the projects are designed, then a contract is awarded to construct them.

A 2002 state law gave the transportation department authority for three projects in which a single contract could be awarded covering both the design and construction. The department is using the design-build model on the Interstate 64 reconstruction in St. Louis, a Missouri River bridge in Kansas City and a package of smaller bridge projects around the state.

Legislation supported by the transportation department would repeal the three-project limit and give the department blanket approval to use design-build contracts. The department likely would use the authority only on large complex projects, such as those costing more than $50 million with lots of traffic issues or unique design criteria, Keith said.

The bill is being sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, who said the success of the initial design-build projects warrants a broader authority for the department. Hobbs said he also is working on a House version, though the bill has not yet been filed.

Stouffer's bill includes an emergency clause, meaning that if passed, it would become law immediately upon the governor's signature instead of the standard Aug. 28 effective date for Missouri laws.

"If there's money available, it will position us to take advantage of it," Stouffer said.

Earlier this week, new Gov. Jay Nixon said he would appoint a committee of at least 15 people to help maximize the amount of money Missouri gets from a federal stimulus package.

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Ncik Hilkemeyer January 26, 2009 | 9:44 a.m.

I am gravely concerned that we are trying so hard to CAPTURE federal money for roads and bridges. In the process the public comment period for the stakeholders along the Hwy 63 project has been limited to less than a month...especially if you consider the places that the DEIS has been distributed to for the public to view. All but two places are closed around 5:00pm or earlier and they are not open on weekends. The two libraries are in Linn and Rolla, making it difficult for the public who live in between these towns to get adequate access to the documents. Which in themselves are daunting and massive to scan through. That is equivilant to railroading the public and shoving information down their throat as to what MODOT's wishes are for the new infrastructure. If MoDot has a backbone and is really considering everyone and the other agencies not only would their purpose state such, they would also be more transparent and report more of the negative comments concerning their road projects.

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