Highway construction could halt without more money, report says

Thursday, November 8, 2007 | 8:55 p.m. CST; updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A recent report from the Missouri Department of Transportation warns that a decrease in funding might cause the department’s construction projects to come to a standstill.

In its annual report, the Transportation Department said it needs a budget increase now that state funds are drying up. Meanwhile, the department said that Missouri has gone from having the third-worst pavement on major roads to the ninth best. The department said that 74 percent of major roads are in good condition and that Missouri recorded the largest drop in traffic-related fatalities.

Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Briggs said that the state might not be able to continue such road improvements if it does not find solutions to the department’s funding crisis.

Amendment 3, approved by voters in 2004, allowed the department to issue bonds for a massive, statewide road repair program. But with the department now saddled with paying off those bonds, officials say it might not be able to focus on future expansion.

“We will be going to maintenance-only mode,” Briggs said.

The Transportation Department is currently averaging more than $1 billion a year in road construction costs, Briggs said. This accounts for more than half of the department’s $2 billion budget. But by 2010, the department’s budget for construction projects will be reduced to $569 million.

“The chickens are coming home to roost,” said Sen. Joan Bray, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, in reference to the department’s need to pay down bond debt.

She said she supports a system that would pay for construction as it is built, rather than accumulating costs and paying for construction all at once.

“Now the bill is due,” Bray, D-St. Louis County, said.

The chairmen of both the House and Senate Transportation committees have proposed plans to turn Interstate 70 into an eight-lane highway, with four lanes designated specifically for trucks. The project, however, would cost about $3.5 billion and require voter approval of a significant package of tax increases.

Although it doesn’t endorse the tax-increase plan, the department’s annual report made reference to the interstate’s growing problems.

“The road is getting more and more congested every year,” Briggs said. “Thirteen million miles are driven on that road a day.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently chose Missouri as one of the six “corridors of the future,” funding a study about how to improve I-70.

“When I-70 was built, there were 180 million people in the U.S., and now there are 300 million,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton.

Because of the congestion, Stouffer said that I-70 is a “safety nightmare.” He said he thinks educating the public about the need for infrastructure is a necessity.

“Citizens don’t think of infrastructure until they’re stuck in traffic or damage is done to their cars,” Stouffer said. “It’s not their job.”

In the legislative session earlier this year, Stouffer proposed a one-cent sales tax increase for interstate expansion. His proposal, which never came up for a vote, would have required statewide voter approval and would have expired at the end of 2018.

Reconstructing the interstate would have a huge impact on Missouri citizens, Stouffer said. He said 36 percent of the state’s jobs are located within three miles of I-70 or I-44.

In exploring ways to increase funds, Stouffer said the state has to look at all options. He said he would prefer to steer clear of additional fuel taxes.

Big construction projects are not the only things on the Transportation Department’s agenda.

“There is still significant need on the pavement side,” Briggs said.

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