JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's Department of Transportation director on Wednesday proposed to cut nearly one-fifth of the department's positions, close facilities and sell equipment to save several hundred million dollars and allow more resources to be devoted to road and bridge projects.
MoDOT Director Kevin Keith estimated the plan would save the state agency $512 million through 2015 by cutting 1,200 staff positions, closing 135 facilities and selling 740 pieces of equipment. After that, he estimated the changes would lead to about $117 million per year in long-term savings. Keith said Missouri faces a transportation funding crisis and that the proposal is designed to help put as much funding as possible into the state's roads and bridges.
"This is not easy, but it's the right thing to do," Keith said. "I don't think we have a choice. We have to get smaller. We have to focus the resources that we have on taking care of our roads and bridges as our first priority. ... I think it's a matter of survival."
Keith presented the budget-cutting proposal Wednesday to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, which was expected to act on the plan at its June 8 meeting. If approved, the proposal would be fully implemented by the end of 2012.
To cut staff, MoDOT plans to use attrition and possible transfers but would use layoffs to make any remaining reductions. Keith said the proposal calls for eliminating about 19 percent of the agency's workforce across the state.
MoDOT also would reorganize and consolidate its 10 regional districts into seven offices and close district offices in Macon, Joplin and Willow Springs. Transportation officials say Missouri's regional district boundaries have essentially remained unchanged since 1922 when the department used mules and wagons to fix roads that in many cases were still gravel.
Changes at the department were proposed as Missouri has less money available for road construction. At the same commission meeting on Wednesday, officials also presented a new five-year construction program that averaged spending about $600 million each year — roughly half of what has been spent annually on average for the preceding five years.
Troubles with Missouri's funding for road construction projects are not a new issue. Since at least 2006, Pete Rahn, the former MoDOT director, said the state's annual highway construction budget would decline significantly by 2010 as proceeds from bonds were passed by the need to pay the debt. Rahn frequently used the metaphor that Missouri's funding would fall off a cliff.
The funding decline was delayed because of federal economic stimulus money that was approved in 2009.
Keith said Wednesday that money from the previous bonds and the stimulus money now have been spent.
Bill McKenna, a former state transportation commissioner and the spokesman for the Missouri Transportation Alliance, said the proposed cuts were a natural response to less funding for transportation. The group includes business and labor organization and community leaders. It has held meetings throughout the state to discuss funding and planning options to maintain the state's infrastructure.
"These cuts are painful, they are deep and they will impact every Missourian," McKenna said. "The cuts highlight the urgent need to resolve Missouri's transportation funding shortfall."
Transportation Commission Chairwoman Mary Nichols said commissioners had asked for officials to consider possible changes and were eager for public input on the proposal.
"This plan began and will end with the commission," Nichols said.