JEFFERSON CITY — The director of the Missouri Department of Transportation announced his intention to step down from the agency next year.
Henry Hungerbeeler’s resignation comes just weeks after an independent citizens panel appointed by the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission recommended management change at the highest levels of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“I am proud of the accomplishments of MoDOT on my watch, but I have concluded that the agency could benefit from new leadership,” Hungerbeeler wrote in a three-page resignation letter to the commission Monday.
Gov. Bob Holden voiced support for the decision, saying the move would perhaps restore citizens’ confidence in the department.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Holden said. “I think it’s the right thing for the state of Missouri. It gives the commission an opportunity to truly define the future of transportation in the state of Missouri.”
Hungerbeeler, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Vietnam, has presided over the department for the last four years. During that time, the department has weathered a barrage of criticism for its management of the state’s transportation system.
Ruling with criticism
Much of that criticism stems from a 15-year highway plan adopted with a tax increase in 1992. The plan promised several things, including a four-lane road to every town with a population of at least 5,000 people.
Trouble came in 1998 when the Highways and Transportation Commission decided that the plan couldn’t be fulfilled, saying that the department’s projections didn’t properly account for the actual cost of carrying out the plan.
In other words, the plan was underfunded.
The replacement road-funding plan adopted by the commission shortly thereafter fueled a rift between urban areas and rural residents who felt shortchanged by the plan’s discontinuation.
Hungerbeeler, who assumed the directorship after the commission’s decision on the 15-year plan, often bore the brunt of others’ frustrations about its demise.
“The problems we have specifically with transportation funding are not of my making,” Hungerbeeler said. “A lot of them pre-existed my time here and will probably be here when I’m gone.”
Although Hungerbeeler’s letter acknowledged the weaknesses that plagued the department at the beginning of his tenure, he also stressed that significant improvements had been made.
“While not intentionally deceitful, the organization was still guilty of making promises we could not keep because of sloppy or uncoordinated staff work. ... I believe I can say without contradiction that we have changed many of those unfavorable things to ones that reflect credit on our great employees and the foresight of the commission,” he wrote.
Some of those changes, including the department’s improved ability to estimate project costs, were received favorably by members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight recently.
Still, legislators’ reaction to the director’s decision is mixed.
Is it enough for MoDot?
Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who serves on the House Transportation and Motor Vehicles Committee, was concerned that the move doesn’t go far enough.
“I think (change at MoDOT) is going to be a long-term process,” Engler said. “I don’t know if changing one position is going to do it.”
Senate Transportation Committee member Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, reacted differently to the news.
“In my view, Henry was easy to work with and more responsive than most people that I have dealt with. He came in after a lot of damage was done, and he worked hard to try to correct it,” Goode said.
Although Hungerbeeler said he was aware the job would be a “turnaround situation” when he accepted it, the strain has forced him to rely on a higher power for comfort.
“I believe God has a purpose and a plan for my life,” he said. “... I don’t feel defeated, but I don’t feel as victorious.”
Hungerbeeler said he will continue in the position through the next legislative session, until June 1, 2004, to give the Highways and Transportation Commission time to find his replacement and carry the department through the transition.