Panel says state transportation agency needs public confession

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's transportation department needs to publicly confess its error in abandoning a 1992 road plan and then develop a new statewide transportation strategy that includes completion of the long-promised projects, according to a draft report compiled Monday by a citizens' advisory panel.

The report suggests that the transportation agency needs to reinvent itself before voters are likely to approve a significant funding increase for roads and other transportation modes. But it stops short of recommending a new governing structure for a transportation commission that it dubs "the most independent and powerful in the nation."

The Blue Ribbon Panel on Accountability, Credibility and Efficiency plans to vote Oct. 7 on a final report and present it later that day to the transportation commission, said chairman Jack Magruder, the former president of Truman State University.

The panel was created by the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission after voters overwhelmingly defeated a roughly $500 million transportation tax plan last year.

Many state officials interpreted the vote as a sign that Missourians don't trust the transportation commission, which abandoned a 15-year spending blueprint in 1998 -- just six years after it was adopted -- because it promised about $1 billion more annually than could be delivered with available funding.

"The first step toward healing the wounds that exist is for the commission to acknowledge publicly that the 1998 decision was an error and a breach of the public's trust that will not happen again," the draft report says.

A spokesman said the transportation department had no comment about the draft report.

Missouri's transportation funding has long been mired by regional disputes.

The 1992 plan, which was accompanied by a tax increase, pledged a four-lane road to every city of at least 5,000 and would have directed about 58 percent of the spending to rural areas.

When commissioners dropped the blueprint in 1998, they adopted a plan that allotted half of the road money to the St. Louis and Kansas City areas and the other half to the rest of the state.

Under a future distribution plan adopted in January by the commission, road money is to be distributed under a formula that considers such things as vehicle miles traveled, population and employment. So-called rural areas are expected to get about 52 percent of the funding.

The advisory panel applauded the latest attempt to resolve the funding issue but expressed doubts that it would succeed. A better strategy might distribute money more directly based on road and bridge conditions and statewide needs, such as economic development, the report says.

The draft report also suggests a reorganization of top management at the department and a new effort by the commission to provide more visible and assertive leadership.

The report, however, does not recommend a change in the basic structure of the commission. Just eight states, including Missouri, have an independent transportation commission that appoints its own director.

The advisory panel said Missouri's commission seems to be "the most independent and powerful in the nation" because it is written into the constitution, has final authority for both the state road funding formula and the selection of road projects, and has constitutionally dedicated funding for highways.

Some politicians have proposed expanding the size of the current six-member commission while others have proposed giving the governor power to pick a transportation director.

But the advisory panel said Missouri has been well served by the current transportation structure and that weakening it would not be in the state's best interest.


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