Road responsibility changes create challenge

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Turning over responsibility for 25 percent of the state highway system to local governments could prove a tough sell for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

MoDOT is pursuing the possibility of transferring ownership of 8,050 miles of state highways to cities and counties. But department officials acknowledge that local leaders will have to be convinced the idea is beneficial to all parties in order for the plan to go anywhere.

Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties, said county commissions have been cool to the concept in the past.

"Historically, our members have been very, very clear that they are not interested in taking on any more road miles," Burke said. "They have got more road miles than they can say grace over right now."

The state's 114 counties are currently responsible for a combined 71,130 miles of road.

MoDOT officials have identified 7,700 miles of state roads that they believe would be more efficiently maintained by the counties. They contend another 350 miles actually function as city streets and should be turned over to municipalities.

Lending an ear

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, said his group is willing to listen to MoDOT's pitch but isn't making any promises.

"I don't know if this is a dead end or if they want to pursue it, but we are always willing to talk with them," Markenson said.

With 32,400 miles, Missouri's state highway system is among the largest in the nation. Many of the less-traveled, lettered routes were added to the Missouri system in the 1950s. In other states such routes are maintained locally.

Duane Michie of Hayti, a member of the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission, said that since MoDOT has insufficient funding to maintain such a large system and voters have rejected higher transportation taxes, other options to coping with the problem must be considered.

"It makes sense to me," Michie said. "We are going to have to reduce the number of miles of road, but how do we do it?"

Funding boost

The key issue to be resolved is funding. Cities and counties already receive a cut of state fuel tax revenue, but if they were to agree to take on additional roads a funding boost would be expected.

Although the number of miles MoDOT is looking at accounts for one-fourth of the state system, the targeted roads -- mainly "farm to market" routes -- are the least expensive to maintain. Michie said local governments could potentially achieve even greater savings as they aren't bound by many of the state and federal regulations that drive up costs for MoDOT.

"Based on what I have seen, it is plain that if the state starts work on these kind of roads, it becomes expensive," Michie said. "The counties could do a lot of these roads less expensively than the state."

MoDOT officials weren't immediately sure if any action by the Missouri Legislature would be needed.

State Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said the idea at least merits discussion, particularly on the funding issue. But Kingery, a member of the House Transportation and Motor Vehicles Committee, said it could potentially allow cities and counties to improve certain roads more quickly without having to wait for MoDOT to fit them into the department's construction plans.

"We probably would get more done locally at the county level, but that is just an assumption," Kingery said.

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