Highway bill gives Missouri sixth-largest allotment in the nation

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Naysayers charge many projects were passed for political reasons.

When President Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill, there were two projects singled out for funding. The latest version has, by one estimate, 6,371 of these special projects, a record that some say politicians should be ashamed of.

The projects in the six-year, $286.4 billion highway and mass transit bill passed by Congress last week range from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, N.Y., to $330 million for a highway in Bakersfield, Calif.

For the beneficiaries -- almost every member of Congress -- they bring jobs and better quality lives to their communities and states. To critics, they are pork-barrel spending at its worst.

Missouri's two U.S. senators on Tuesday heralded a new federal transportation bill that will increase the state's share of yearly highway money by 30 percent and provide hundreds of millions of dollars for local transportation projects.

But motorists be warned: It could be years before Missouri drivers begin seeing the benefits, as the state wrestles with an immense backlog of highway needs and the unavoidable bureaucracy required before the rubber hits the road.

"Too many Missourians know the delays that bad roads can cause," Sen. Kit Bond, a major architect of the bill, told a packed room of Kansas City-area elected leaders, construction and engineering representatives, union officials and transportation advocates. "And they know that without good roads, we kill too many people every day."

The bill, which still awaits the president's signature, would raise Missouri's annual transportation funding by $201 million to more than $862 million, or $1.3 billion over the bill's six-year life. In addition, it increases the state's return on each dollar of fuel tax from 94 cents to 98 cents.

Specific projects

Tucked away in the bill is $741.6 million in specific projects for the state, ranging from $75 million for a new bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis to $500,000 to build riverfront trails in Warsaw. It also includes $10.8 million for Jackson's East Main Street Interstate 55 interchange, a project estimated to cost $5.8 million; and another $5 million for Scott City's long-awaited Ramsey Creek bridge.

Missouri's total is the sixth largest in the nation, according to an analysis by budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"Egregious and remarkable," exclaimed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the estimated $24 billion in the bill set aside for highways, bus stops, parking lots and bike trails requested by lawmakers.

McCain, one of only four senators to oppose the bill, listed several dozen "interesting" projects, including $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse on the Erie Canal and $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas rural roads.

His favorite, he said, was $2.3 million for landscaping on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California. "I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say."

Pete Rahn, executive director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said his staff is just starting to dig through the 1,700-page document. He said he hopes to have a partial plan put together later this fall when the statewide transportation commission develops the list of projects the state will complete over the next five years.

"Because there are so many projects -- it's a great problem to have -- it's going to take us a month to get our arms wrapped around it," Rahn said.

Still, he said the federal list is just a dent in the state's transportation needs. He noted that when state officials last year asked for statewide projects that could be paid for with last year's constitutional amendment diverting more fuel tax funds to road construction, they got $8 billion worth in ideas.

He said the federal list is close to the department's own wish list.

In fact, he said there is some overlap between the federal projects and projects already earmarked for state dollars, meaning the department may later be able to add or expand existing projects.

Sen. Jim Talent rejected notions that many of those projects were merely political favors but based on true need.

"If you drive the roads everyday, you know where the bottlenecks are," Talent said. "We visited the local community leaders. We tried to listen and learn and respond."

For example, Talent said one of the biggest projects on Missouri's list is $45 million to complete the four-laning of U.S. 36 between Hannibal and St. Joseph.

Once that's complete, he said, it should remove a lot of commercial truck traffic from overtaxed Interstate 70, one of the most dangerous and dilapidated highways in the nation.

Glenn Carriker, assistant director for the Missouri Safety Center at Central Missouri State University, said alternate routes are a good way of reducing traffic and congestion on key roadways -- provided enough people know about them.

"Our roadways in their original design were never designed for the volume of traffic and speed of traffic that we have today," Carriker said. "It's going to be a long and tedious process to catch up."

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