Road repair plan focuses on state's most heavily traveled highways

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The new initiative is expected to cost about $1.1 billion over five years.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's most heavily traveled highways are in line for a makeover.

The state Highways and Transportation Commission approved a new initiative Wednesday that will speed up improvements to 5,573 miles of major highways. The goal is to get 85 percent of those roads -- up from the current 70 percent -- in good condition by 2011.

The commission kicked off the "Better Roads, Brighter Future" initiative by adding $124 million of projects to the 2007 road construction schedule. Some of those 34 projects were planned for later years, and some had not previously been included in the Missouri Department of Transportation's five-year plan.

The new program comes after the 2006 completion of the department's "Smooth Roads Initiative," which repaved about 2,200 miles of the most heavily traveled roads. Those roads are included in the broader 5,573 miles being targeted in the department's newest initiative.

Not only will the targeted roads get new pavement, they also will get new shoulders with rumble strips, wider yellow and white stripes and brighter signs -- all designed to improve safety. The project list includes both four-lane and two-lane highways.

Although carrying about 80 percent of Missouri's vehicle volume, the major highways account for fewer than 20 percent of the state's 32,423 miles of roads. The emphasis on improving major roads means the minor roads may have to be maintained longer in their current conditions, Transportation Department officials said.

But "I believe this is going to be the package that nearly every Missourian is going to see a benefit from," said Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn.

The department estimates that 95 percent of Missourians live within 10 miles of at least one of the major highways included in its plan.

Little wiggle room

The new initiative is expected to cost about $1.1 billion over five years, with all of that money coming from dollars already budgeted for existing roads. Transportation officials acknowledged that would leave little wiggle room for other initiatives or if new needs surface.

Since voter rejection of a $500 million transportation tax package in 2002, the transportation commission has focused on trying to improve the condition of existing roads, with the hope of also improving its public perception.

The department's Smooth Roads plan was funded through a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2004 that authorized bonds backed by the redirection of all vehicle sales taxes to roads and bridges, instead of a portion going to the state's general revenue. The amendment also reduced the amount of road-fund revenue, such as fuel taxes and driver's license fees, that go to other state agencies performing transportation-related duties.

Although the amendment provided an influx of money, that funding will drop off in several years as the department repays the bonds. Chief engineer Kevin Keith said Wednesday that if the department does not get another funding boost, the newly improved road system will be declining again within 10 years.

The big question is whether the widespread improvements now underway will make voters inclined to give the Transportation Department more money or whether it will lead voters to believe the department does not need additional money.

Rahn said a survey conducted in 2004 showed the public was most concerned about fixing existing roads. By 2006, the survey results showed a roughly 50-50 split between concern about taking care of existing roads and expanding or building new roads to relieve traffic congestion and add capacity.

As more existing roads are improved, Rahn predicted the public's desires would naturally shift to an expanded road system, which could aid in seeking additional revenue.

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