Panel calls for apology on roads

A report says the highway commission’s credibility suffered after it cancelled
a 15-year road plan.
Wednesday, November 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The state Highways and Transportation Commission received a citizen panel’s report Tuesday on how to improve its credibility with the public but passed over its first opportunity to publicly apologize for dropping a 1992 highway plan.

A public apology was among the report’s recommendations.

The report found the commission’s credibility problems stem largely from its 1998 decision to quit using a 15-year road plan that had been adopted just six years earlier, along with a fuel tax increase.

Among other things, the plan promised a four-lane road to every town of 5,000. But commissioners determined the plan was under-funded by more than $1 billion annually, partly because it failed to account for inflation and a natural growth in road projects.

Morris Westfall, a former state senator from Halfway and a member of the citizens’ panel, told commissioners they should say they’re sorry for how the issue was handled.

“I just urge you to swallow your pride,” he said. “Step up there and say it was a mistake and we’ve got to go on.”

But Commission Chairman Barry Orscheln said it’s too early for that, adding, “I’m not in a position to make that decision today.”

“I don’t think we did a good enough job in ’98 explaining what we were doing,” he said. “We want to have an opportunity to digest it, to discuss it among ourselves.”

The panel was appointed after the overwhelming voter defeat last year of a roughly $500 million transportation tax plan.

The report also suggests the commission change the culture of the Department of Transportation by reorganizing top management, streamlining its bureaucracy and pushing as many decisions as possible down to regional highway districts.

Also recommended are two ways to get more money for highways — allowing toll roads and eventually ending the diversion of highway dollars to other state agencies, both of which could

require constitutional changes.

“The panel believes significant changes are needed to convince the public it’s a new day at MoDOT,” said Jack Magruder, the advisory panel chairman, who presented the report.

Orscheln and other commissioners said they take the findings seriously and will work to make changes.

“Nobody likes to hear that their baby’s ugly,” he said. “We’re going to take what you gave us and we’re going to try our best to build your recommendations into the way we do business.”

In other business Tuesday, the commission approved the Missouri Department of Transportation’s budget request for fiscal 2005 — about $1.7 billion overall — and Henry Hungerbeeler, the department director, explained the agency’s priorities in next year’s legislative session.

He said a focus will be pushing for legislation to limit the department’s liability in civil lawsuits and to allow for toll roads.

Toll roads would require a change in the Missouri Constitution, which currently doesn’t allow them. Voters have rejected such proposals twice in the past.

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