JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- While proud of reforms implemented at the Missouri Department of Transportation under his leadership, Henry Hungerbeeler on Tuesday said he decided public perception of the embattled agency might improve if he stepped down as director.
"I just think that the department could benefit from new leadership, that perhaps I have taken it as far as is perhaps possible right now," Hungerbeeler said.
Hungerbeeler intends to remain as director until June 1 so he can pursue MoDOT's agenda during the upcoming legislative session.
"I think changing horses in the middle of that stream would be very detrimental to the department," Hungerbeeler said.
A retired Air Force colonel, Hungerbeeler assumed command of MoDOT in March 1999 on the heels of the agency's admission the previous year that its ambitious 15-year construction plan adopted in 1992 was from the start overpromised and underfunded.
While Hungerbeeler had no part in the creation of the plan, which promised a four-lane highway to every town with at least 5,000 residents, or the decision set it aside, he has dealt with the continuing fallout throughout his tenure.
Hungerbeeler instituted reforms that have made MoDOT the most accurate highway agency in the nation when it comes to estimating project costs, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Even so, public distrust of MoDOT was seen as a key reason voters overwhelmingly rejected a $483 million transportation tax package in August 2002.
State Rep. Lanie Black, R-Charleston, serves on the House Transportation and Motor Vehicles Committee. He said Hungerbeeler has done a good job, but that his departure will allow MoDOT a fresh start with the public and many lawmakers.
Another transportation committee member, state Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said Hungerbeeler often seemed overly defensive but didn't deserve to be the target of much the criticism leveled at him.
A blue-ribbon panel of state residents issued a critical report last month in which it called for a reorganization of MoDOT's top management. Hungerbeeler said the report had no bearing on his decision and that the State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT's governing board, put no pressure on him to step down.
Commissioner Duane Michie of Hayti said the resignation was Hungerbeeler's call and he respected the decision.
"Henry has brought us a long way," Michie said. "I don't think there is any question about it."
Michie said he didn't know what course of action the commission would take on Hungerbeeler's request to remain on the job until June. The commission meets Friday in Kansas City.
Although Hungerbeeler will be with MoDOT another six months, assuming the commission agrees, he doubts he will have a change of heart about leaving.
"I certainly don't have any intention of being talked out of it," Hungerbeeler said. "I'm not sure there is anyone who would attempt to do that."