Cape Girardeau city officials start work on next phase of road improvement tax plan

Monday, August 25, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ Bryan Burger, job foreman for Columbia Construction Co., cleaned off a wall form Aug. 1 before readying it for another section to pour concrete for work on a box culvert on the new LaSalle Avenue construction east of Interstate 55.

Cape Girardeau city leaders don't want to mess up a good thing.

The city Planning and Zoning Commission is starting the process of identifying and obtaining cost estimates for a new set of road projects taxpayers will be asked to fund in 2010, when the half-cent transportation sales tax will be up for renewal.

But unless there is strong public pressure for change, the program will remain focused on road construction only, city leaders said last week.

"I am absolutely committed to maintaining the sanctity of that tax going exclusively to roads," Mayor Jay Knudtson said. "There are some people, including city staff, who have suggested we broaden the scope, such as providing money for matching grants at the airport or ... to help assist the transit authority."

And Knudtson said he's willing to discuss a larger city commitment to other modes of transportation, the transportation sales tax is working too well to change its focus. "I don't feel we can ever do anything to jeopardize the trust of the voters."

Harry Rediger, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission's transportation subcommittee, said he will not go along with diverting money to other forms of transportation. "We are going to keep it to streets," he said. "The bottom line is we are limited to a half-cent sales tax and $20 million over five years is not a lot of money."

History of the fund

KIT DOYLE ~ Columbia Construction Co. workers prepared wall forms to pour more concrete as a box culvert took shape Friday morning, August 1, 2008, on LaSalle Avenue east of Interstate 55.

City voters enacted the half-cent sales tax in August 1995 by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin. The vote signaled a reversal from a decade earlier, when voters twice rejected a similar-sized tax measure. The difference in 1995 that changed opponents into supporters was a promise that the tax money would be placed in a trust fund and would only be used for specified projects ranging from street repairs to new construction.

Called the Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF for short, the tax has been renewed twice. Each time a specific list of projects, each with an estimated cost, was presented to voters. The process is starting again. Charlie Haubold, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, on Monday asked members of the Cape Girardeau City Council to prepare suggestions for projects to be included in what will be known as TTF-4.

Haubold also told the council that letters seeking suggestions for possible projects had been sent to Southeast Missouri State University, the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce, Old Town Cape and others identified by the city staff.

Selecting projects

The preliminary list already compiled includes items that were dropped because they didn't fit the budget when the current tax program was proposed in 2005. That tax, which will expire Dec. 31, 2010, is expected to raise $20.3 million.

There are 22 street projects on the preliminary list. The tax doesn't just pay for new street construction -- in each program, about 25 percent of the money raised is used for repaving existing streets, curb and gutter repairs, sidewalk and trail construction, and street lighting.

The number of street construction projects in each plan has become smaller, from 15 in TTF-1 to nine in TTF-3, but the size of the projects have grown with each new plan, Rediger said.

The list of 22 projects, with additions as suggestions are received, will have to be pared again, Rediger said. The roads are built as cash flow, right-of-way acquisition and development needs dictate. The last major TTF-2 project is being constructed now, the widening of Independence Street from Pacific Street to West End Boulevard. That project was delayed due to the condemnation process used to acquire land from property owners, Rediger said.

Both Rediger and Knudtson said the TTF program has transformed Cape Girardeau. The street program spurred by the tax has been a catalyst for development and will open newly annexed areas for exploitation in the coming decade.

Longtime residents should remember what Perryville Road and Broadway west of Perry Avenue were like before the first tax, which also paid for paving most of the remaining gravel streets in town. Mount Auburn Road south of William Street and Siemers Drive south of Bloomfield Road were also programs in earlier versions of TTF, he said.

"Because our city is growing, we can see ourselves marching north and west down Armstrong," Rediger said.

Knudtson agreed, adding that the city would have tried to achieve some of the projects but it would have meant cuts elsewhere in city services. "I am here to tell you as a guy who reviews, has tweaked and struggled with budgets, there is no way within that budget that we could maintain and develop roads near to the level we have without that revenue stream."

Other TTF work

LaSalle Avenue, the road linking Route W with the new Interstate 55 interchange and East Main Street in Jackson, is under construction as part of TTF-3. The cost of that project has risen from $3.1 million estimated in 2005 to $5.3 million today, an increase covered in part by the 15 percent contingency fund set aside from each tax program. A project certain to be on the TTF-4 program will be Lewis & Clark Parkway, the outer road on the east side of I-55 from Center Junction to the new interchange.

The perspective of which project was more likely to spur the development has changed, Knudtson said. He believes now that Lewis & Clark Parkway is going to generate more new business activity in the near term than LaSalle Avenue will. But because LaSalle was in the TTF-3 plan and the Lewis & Clark Parkway was not, LaSalle is the street being built.

Altering TTF-3 is off-limits, Knudtson said, because it represents a promise to the residents of Cape Girardeau.

"As critical as LaSalle is, there have been people who have said re-align the projects in TTF-3 to find funding for" Lewis & Clark, he said. "We will find another way to underwrite that project."

When city voters went to the polls in August 2005, they approved the tax extension with 81 percent voting in favor. The next extension will be aimed at maintaining Cape Girardeau's position as a regional hub, Rediger said.

"If we just had to satisfy the street needs of just our population, it would be easy," Rediger said. "But we couldn't survive if we weren't a regional hub."

335-6611, extension 126

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