As MU and Columbia grow, developers say city's infrastructure lags

Thursday, April 18, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 9:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 22, 2013
Cranes rise above downtown Columbia. Growth is beginning to stretch the fragile fabric of the city's aging infrastructure and how the city will fund repairs and renovations largely remains unclear.

COLUMBIA — The shells of soon-to-be housing and parking complexes pepper downtown Columbia. The symphony of buzzing drills, pounding hammers, repeated beeping of backing-up trucks and clattering jackhammers accompanies the construction.

Despite this, there is a shortage of new houses, according to Don Stamper, executive director for both the Central Missouri Development Council and the Home Builder's Association of Columbia. 

Fred Overton, a developer of lots for new subdivisions, is now in the process of selling lots in the Wyndham Ridge Subdivision on the southwest edge of Columbia. This surge in activity has followed the seismic collapse of the housing industry in 2007 that paralyzed development.

Boone Hospital Center, MU Health Center and Truman Veterans Hospital have spent about $347.5 million on new technology, parking garages, buildings, lobbies and exteriors.

One thing is clear: Columbia is growing. But that growth is beginning to stretch the fragile fabric of the city's aging infrastructure — and how the city will fund repairs and renovations largely remains unclear. 

The demand for some accommodations has outpaced supply.

Over the past decade, Columbia Public Schools purchased more than 150 trailers to serve as classrooms on almost every school campus. Enrollment during those 10 years leapt nearly 8 percent — an increase that Superintendent Chris Belcher deemed "unusual."

District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark called the trailers "crazily inefficient" and pegged them "a safety concern."

Currently, the district is on the path to carry out a timeline of school bond issues through 2020 that will fund improvements. But, "we are behind, terribly behind," Belcher said. 

Over the past 11 years, MU has been defined by skyrocketing enrollment growth: The university raked in more than 8,500 new students. That accrual has clashed with incremental decreases in state funding, which has forced MU to use tuition provided by the enrollment growth to balance its budget. 

For fiscal year 2013, tuition contributed 62 percent of the general operating budget, while the legislature added less than one-third of the funds, according to MU budget documents. Increasing enrollment might not cover the $16.3 million expected shortfall for fiscal year 2014, said Rhonda Gibler, MU budget director. The long-term outlook for the general operating fund looks bleak, Gibler said. 

Space limitations on campus and expected decline in enrollment have left MU administration, faculty and staff wondering where the funds will come from or where the cuts will be made to balance the budget for fiscal year 2014 and beyond. 

Many students grew up outside of Columbia and use Interstate 70 to travel to and from home. The oldest interstate in the nation, its original pavement has been "beaten to a pulp," said Bob Brendel, special assignments coordinator at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

I-70 was designed to carry 12,000 to 18,000 vehicles a day. Now it carries anywhere from 23,000 to 100,000 vehicles a day. Without adding any capacity, it's estimated that I-70 would operate at a "stop-and-go" condition by 2030, Brendel said.

Interstate expansion is saddled with a $2 billion price tag, with no answer for how to pay it.

Water demand management also hangs in the balance in Columbia.

According to Water and Light Department statistics, demand for water is approaching the all-time high set in 2006, when it reached about 4.6 billion gallons. The statistics also revealed that Columbia's water use has doubled since 1982. Now, some of the city's 15 wells have lost a bit of their pumping capacity over time because of built-up sediment.

But Columbia has put itself on the map regarding green energy. The amount of renewable energy in the city's electricity portfolio rose from 1 percent in 2007 to almost 8 percent in 2012. These percentages are projected to reach nearly 15 percent by the end of 2022. The rooftop installation of solar panels at the city-owned COLT Railroad facility is the largest in eight contiguous states. 

Aside from its advances and the problems it faces in sustaining growth, Columbia retains some of its roots.

Ernie's Cafe & Steak House sits just west of the construction of a 22,000-square-foot building on Walnut Street. The restaurant has served generations of diners since it opened in 1934. 

Its hash browns, French toast and skillet-cooked eggs have remained a constant in a city that has been in flux for the past decade.

Customers constantly flood in through one door and trickle out the other. That will continue for "generation after generation after generation," owner Tom Spurling said. 



Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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