JEFFERSON CITY — You’ve probably known someone like this: A person who loses a lot of weight but listens to critics or stares at the mirror and still thinks he or she is fat. The person might no longer have a weight problem but a perception problem. That’s a bit what it’s like these days to be a state transportation official.
The Missouri Department of Transportation — and the six-member commission that oversees it — have suffered from a chronic management problem manifest most obviously in a 15-year road plan adopted in 1992.
The plan, accompanied by a legislatively approved fuel tax increase, promised thousands of miles of new and improved highways, including a four-lane road to every town with at least 5,000 people.
But the plan had a basic problem: Its financial estimates weren’t factual, so it couldn’t deliver what it promised.
A few years of road-building experience quickly revealed that projects were costing more than anticipated. As it turns out, the plan failed to account for inflation, and it relied upon informal-style estimates instead of project-specific forecasts. Plus, it failed to account for what transportation insiders call “project creep,” the natural tendency for road and bridge projects to grow in scope over time.
Acknowledging the financial foible in November 1998, members of the state Highways and Transportation Commission dropped the 1992 plan as their financial blueprint and instead adopted a rolling five-year plan, which directed more money to St. Louis and Kansas City roads at the expense of rural areas.
Four months later, retired Air Force Col. Henry Hungerbeeler was hired by the commission as the first nonengineer to direct the department. His task was to bring military management skills to the troubled agency.
Since Hungerbeeler’s arrival, the department dramatically improved the accuracy of its project estimates. For example, $2 billion of projects were completed within 0.03 percent of their estimates during the past four years. The Federal Highway Administration even rated Missouri as the best project estimator of all transportation departments nationally.
Missouri’s transportation agency also improved its ability to complete projects in a timelier manner.
From a purely factual standpoint, Hungerbeeler’s transportation administration appeared to have corrected the main flaws revealed by the 1992 plan.
But the public and some elected officials still perceived a troubled transportation agency. And each time Hungerbeeler tried to point out the department’s success, some people only became more frustrated.
What the politicians and public apparently wanted were apologies not only for the 1992 plan but also for the 1998 decision to drop or delay some of the projects, as well as a humble pledge to do better. What Hungerbeeler often provided, however, was a defensive-sounding assertion that the department already was doing better.
Last year’s overwhelming voter defeat of a $500 million transportation tax plan was a sign that the public still didn’t trust the transportation department with any more of its money.
Then six weeks ago, a citizens advisory panel appointed by the transportation commission concluded that the department needed a reorganization of top management “to provide the public and elected officials with clear evidence that a new day has dawned at MoDOT.”
The panel’s report targeted no specific people or positions.
But its implication finally nudged Hungerbeeler to announce last week that he was resigning, effective June 1. Upset by Hungerbeeler’s departure, longtime commissioner Ollie Gates of Kansas City also announced his resignation.
Hungerbeeler’s frustration was evident in his resignation letter.
“I believe we have made great strides toward restoring the credibility that was lost as a result of the 1992 Plan debacle,” he wrote. “But again, as I reflect on the situation that confronts our state, I realize that great strides alone don’t accomplish what needs to be done.”
That’s because the transportation department’s problem now is based more on perception than reality. And an image problem ultimately requires an image solution.
The resignations of Hungerbeeler and Gates create the impression that big changes are under way at the Missouri Department of Transportation. Perhaps that’s what’s needed to underscore the changes that already have occurred.
But quite likely, there are more changes to come for a transportation agency still the subject of public and political skepticism.