COLUMBIA — For years the Missouri General Assembly has struggled to find a way to find more money to improve the state's highway system, but most of the ideas that have been floated have yet to gain any traction.
Some legislators have proposed dedicated sales taxes or higher taxes on motor fuels. Others have called for funneling a percentage of any increase in general revenue to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Even toll roads, an option the state historically has avoided, have entered into the discussion.
The Missouri Statewide Transportation Improvement Program creates and revises annually the list of construction projects planned for the next five fiscal years. These projects include highways, bridges and transit projects, among others.
The proposed highway and bridge construction schedule for the fiscal 2011-2015 includes a total of 15 projects for the three counties included in the 21st, 23rd and 24th House districts. There are 11 projects for Boone County, four for Monroe and zero for Audrain.
Available on the Missouri Department of Transportation's website are complete lists of the projects, divided by state districts.
Finding new money for the highway system is a particular challenge in the current economic climate. Here's what candidates for local seats in the House of Representatives had to say about the issue:
Democrat Kelly Schultz of Shaw said that there must be a comprehensive assessment of Missouri’s roadways to determine what sort of work they need and that improvements should be addressed before expansions. She said that, if elected, the first thing she would do is sit down with officials in the Missouri Department of Transportation to look for areas of the 21st District that need repairs, then those that could use expansion.
Schultz said it's important that all highways be safe, but it's particularly important in rural areas that efficient roadways be in place for economic development and for simple, everyday use.
Schultz said that “we are gonna be in a world of hurt,” because the state has over-promised and underfunded transportation projects in the past. She said she plans to be “crystal clear” with voters about which projects can be funded and finished.
Republican John Cauthorn of Mexico, Mo., said he assisted in winning funding to make sections of U.S. 36 from Hannibal to Macon and U.S. 63 from Kirksville to Macon into four-lane highways during his time in the Senate.
Cauthorn wants to make U.S. 54 from Mexico, Mo., to Louisiana, Mo. a four-lane as well. While the section is on the eastern edge of the 21st District, Cauthorn said “the people of Mexico have been interested in that for quite some time.”
Regarding statewide needs, Cauthorn said he would like to see improvements on Interstate 70. He likes the idea of separate lanes for tractor-trailers and cars. Cauthorn said that the condition of I-70 is important because its carries a high volume of traffic and is important to the central Missouri economy.
Like Schultz, Cauthorn said the focus now needs to be on maintenance rather than new construction.
Cauthorn also agreed with Schultz that it's important to follow through on promises. Cauthorn said that he thinks voters are “gun shy” when it comes to voting on transportation projects because they haven’t been given what was promised to them.
Republican Paul Szopa said there are several areas around the state where highways and bridges could be repaired or expanded.
“If we leave roads and bridges in disrepair, it could lead to accidents,” he said.
Szopa said he would leave it to the transportation department to decide which roads to repair. He suggested placing tolls on interstates to generate revenue for improving the highway system.
“We absolutely are going to have to consider tolls as a way to fund these projects,” Szopa said. He suggested starting with Interstates 70 and 44.
Szopa also suggested the state cut spending on capital improvements to have money to pay for repairs.
Incumbent Democrat Stephen Webber also suggested I-70 and U.S. 63 as highways that could use upgrades. Webber, however, differed from Szopa on how to pay for these improvements.
“I don’t personally like tolling,” Webber said. “It’s nice not to have to pay.”
Webber said money for road repair and expansion could come from state bond issues. He added, though, that it probably would be several years before a serious discussion on highway expansion could take place because of the state of the economy. Road repair, on the other hand, could help strengthen the economy.
Incumbent Democrat Chris Kelly said his primary goal regarding highways is to build an overpass at the intersection of U.S. 63 and Route H, near Columbia Regional Airport. He believes an overpass would increase the economic viability of the airport and make the intersection safer.
“No one will put a distribution center where trucks can’t get in and out safely,” Kelly said, adding that a highway patrolman has told him the crossing is one of the most dangerous points between Jefferson City and the Iowa state line.
He also mentioned the extension of Stadium Boulevard from U.S. 63 to Interstate 70 as a project that would be good for Columbia. But he said that, based on his experience, he can’t be as effective in addressing constituent concerns by working on too many fronts. He wants to focus on the airport interchange first.
Republican Laura Nauser said that while her first priority is the state budget, she agreed that safety issues on Missouri highways were very important.
“I am always crossing my fingers when I have a horse trailer and am driving on Highway 63,” she said. Like Kelly, she said the most important highway project for Columbia is the airport interchange. She mentioned that she personally knew a family that had an experienced a tragedy in that area and she hopes to reduce the number of crossovers there.
Nauser also said that safety along U.S. 63 and at its interchanges will become an increasing concern as Ashland and Columbia continue to grow.