Gap remains in revised transportation needs

Thursday, June 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Department of Transportation has scaled back its long-range estimate of the money needed for roads, bridges and other means of transportation.

But the revised figures still show a significant gap between the money needed and the money available.

The department for more than a year now has been saying it would take more than $37 billion to meet Missouri's transportation needs over the next 20 years, and it was projected to have just $19 billion in revenue.

At a transportation conference Wednesday, MoDOT chief engineer Kevin Keith said the department has scaled back the state's projected transportation needs by eliminating some long-range projects and holding down the costs on others.

New projections put Missouri's transportation needs at $31.4 billion over the next two decades -- still a considerable gap when compared to the $12.6 billion that Keith said would be available if funding continued at its current level.

Even with the revised figures, the state's current transportation funding would cover just 40 percent of the needs -- leaving a $938 million annual shortfall.

The new projections were presented as a possible starting point for the development of a transportation spending plan that eventually could be submitted to Missouri voters. Keith said details about specific projects included in the $31.4 billion estimate could be made public within the next couple of weeks.

The latest figures project an annual state spending need over the next 20 years of:

* $645 million to take care of existing roads and bridges.

* $92 million for "other ways to get around," such as buses, trains, airport and river ports.

* $360 million to rebuild interstates 70 and 44.

* $275 million for other major projects.

* $200 million for transportation infrastructure projects contributing to local economic development.

Keith called it "a realistic version of what we need to do in Missouri to move us forward -- it's not a wish list."

About 200 people attended Wednesday's transportation forum hosted by the legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight. The audience included representatives of highway contractors, consultants, lobbyists, local government officials and highway safety advocates, as well as state transportation commissioners.

Department director Pete Rahn outlined how the last voter-approved highway initiative -- a 2004 constitutional amendment authorizing bonding covered by the redirection of some existing state money to highways -- has resulted in improved conditions for Missouri's most-traveled roads.

Included in the conference packets was a color MoDOT brochure describing how transportation funding was "falling off the cliff" in 2010, as the bond payments rise, federal road funding decreases and construction costs increase.

Among the keynote speakers was Republican political consultant David Barklage, who worked on the 2004 ballot measure. He warned that a campaign message about looming transportation "funding crisis" would not be enough to sell a tax increase to voters who already are distrustful of government and concerned about their own financial troubles, including rising gas prices.

There first must be a comprehensive, unified vision for Missouri's transportation system, Barklage said. That must include a plan that lists specific projects, specific completion dates and specific costs, includes strict oversight and places an expiration date on any tax increase, he said.

This is the second year the legislative committee has hosted a forum on the state's transportation needs.

Since last year, "I think there's been a realization, with public sentiment the way it is, that we need to put forth a vision," said committee co-chairman Rep. Neal St. Once, R-Ballwin. "We need to know what we need to fund, and what we want to fund, before we can talk about funding."

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