MoDOT needs a map, not a rearview mirror

Friday, January 23, 2004

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission has publicly apologized for its decision five years ago to give up its ambitious 15-year plan created in 1992. Now it's time to focus on the future rather than dwelling on the past.

The 15-year plan became the center of controversy when the highways and transportation commission announced in 1998 that it would take an additional $1 billion a year to complete the plan on schedule. As a result, the Missouri Department of Transportation could no longer stick to the 15-year plan's schedule -- although the plan's projects continue to guide much of MoDOT's new five-year planning schedule.

There were other factors that raised questions about MoDOT's accountability. For one, how transportation funding was split between rural and urban areas became a hot button. Under the 15-year plan, 59 percent went to rural projects and 41 percent to urban areas. When the plan was abandoned, funding was evenly divided between rural and urban projects, raising the ire of highway users and legislators from outstate areas where most of Missouri's state roads are.

Another factor was the new emphasis on how revenue generated by state fuel taxes was being spent. The 1992 plan included a 6-cent-a-gallon increase in state fuel taxes -- which motorists continued to pay after MoDOT decided it couldn't stick to the 15-year plan. Although it had been going on for years, the diversion of fuel-tax revenue to other state agencies suddenly became a sticking point.

MoDOT officials stressed that the diverted revenue would make a big difference in paying for needed highway projects. But officials in the agencies receiving a portion of the fuel-tax revenue have strongly resisted losing any of the money.

And that's a conundrum for the Missouri Legislature as well. Any effort to keep all of the fuel-tax revenue in the highway department's pot would create the need to either find replacement revenue for the affected state agencies or decide those agencies can get along with less money.

But it's a problem that needs to be tackled. Just as the public apology helps eliminate some of the distrust that has mushroomed since the decision to drop the 15-year plan, ending the diversion of revenue from fuel taxes to agencies other than MoDOT would put that bugaboo to rest as well.

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