MoDOT director: Roads are safer, but more money needed

Thursday, February 7, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Delivering what is likely the final mandatory annual update on the Missouri Department of Transportation, director Pete Rahn touted accountability and safety records Wednesday while asking lawmakers for more money.

"While the public has filet mignon expectations, MoDOT has Filet-O-Fish funding," Rahn told a joint session of the legislature. He said the public has requested $37 billion worth of transportation projects over the next 20 years, while the department is likely to receive only around $19 billion.

Rahn credited road improvement projects, such as one that will repave and improve lane markers and signs along 5,600 miles of highways by 2012, with making the state's transportation system safer. For the first time since 1993, fewer than 1,000 people died in vehicle accidents, he said.

For several years, Rahn has warned that the money available for transportation projects would drop off in 2010. In his speech Wednesday, he renewed concern about a financial "perfect storm" with smaller budgets made worse by rising costs for road construction materials.

He urged lawmakers to find money for projects to expand lanes and reduce congestion on Interstate 70 and Interstate 44, renovate problem bridges and expand Amtrak service. But the shopping list isn't cheap. Rahn estimates it would cost:

* $7 billion to expand I-70 and I-44 with dedicated lanes to separate tractor-trailers from passenger vehicles.

* $300 million to $500 million over 10 years to repair problem large bridges or $7 billion to replace them.

* $10 million to add rail tracks and an electronic messaging systems at stations.

Without state efforts to bolster funding, Rahn warned, "we will go from an improving highway system to one that is deteriorating."

Individual Republican lawmakers have proposed a variety of ideas for helping relieve congestion on Interstate 70 and Interstate 44, but legislative leaders have been hesitant. The ideas include asking voters to approve a 1 cent sales tax and creating toll roads.

But House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said last month it's unlikely lawmakers will try to deal with the issue in an election year.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the Republicans, who have majorities in the House and Senate, should be working on funding options right away.

During a special session last summer, lawmakers approved a program that quickens bridge repairs by awarding a single contract to fix and maintain 802 of the state's worst bridges. Lawmakers approved the plan after a deadly collapse in Minnesota.

Missouri has more bridges in poor condition than all but three other states -- Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Almost one of every five state bridge, or 4,433, is structurally deficient, according to 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

Last week, the Missouri Department of Transportation announced that it needs to further study the safety of one-third of state bridges built similarly to the one that collapsed.

Lawmakers began requiring the State of Transportation speech in 2004 to increase the department's accountability to the Legislature and public. Since then, the department has a new director and the Legislature has regained confidence in the agency.

The law requiring the speech expires, and it is unlikely the Legislature will extend it.

About half of the state's 192 lawmakers skipped portions of the speech.

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