JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's new transportation director pledged Wednesday to fix a statewide system of roads and bridges that ranks among the nation's worst.
Pete Rahn, addressing the full legislature for the first time since taking over the Department of Transportation last September, pledged noticeable improvement in the quality of Missouri's roads and the employees who design and maintain them.
"Our state transportation system is deficient, but your state transportation department is committed to fixing it," Rahn said in his State of Transportation speech.
While outlining highway spending plans, Rahn urged lawmakers to approve just two initiatives -- a tougher seat belt law and more money for non-highway transportation needs.
The formal transportation speech to the legislature is mandated under a 2003 state law. Last year, Rahn's predecessor Henry Hungerbeeler used the first such speech to urge lawmakers to raise more money for highways.
Hungerbeeler, whose speech came shortly after he had announced his resignation, was in charge when voters rejected a $500 million transportation tax plan in 2002. Rahn took office shortly before voters approved a constitutional amendment gradually directing more of the state's existing tax revenue to the department.
Under that initiative, the state Highways and Transportation Commission already has approved $360 million of repavement projects intended to smooth out Missouri's most traveled roads and pledged $430 million to accelerate work on 55 already planned construction projects.
Later this spring, the commission plans to identify an additional $1.3 billion in construction projects to be financed with bonds authorized by the ballot measure.
"Missourians have sent a clear message that they want smoother, safer highways," Rahn said. "Today, we send a clear message that smoother, safer highways are exactly what they will get."
Missouri has the nation's third worst pavement conditions and fourth largest number of deficient bridges, Rahn said. Heavily traveled Interstate 70, he said, "is in a state of near crisis."
About 1,200 people are killed and an additional 69,000 injured annually on Missouri roads, he said. To help reduce that, Rahn urged legislators to pass a law allowing police to pull motorists over for not wearing seat belts.
Motorists now can be ticketed for not wearing seat belts only if they are first stopped for another traffic violation.
Senate Transportation Committee chairman Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis, has made the seat belt proposal one of his top priorities. Passage could enable Missouri to get more than $16 million in one-time federal funds, he said.
Rahn also proposed to dedicate an estimated $9 million to $13 million annually in state sales taxes from highway construction contractors to other modes of transportation, including airports, railways, river ports and public transit. Those taxes currently go into the state's general revenue fund, which is used for everything from schools to prisons.
Rahn wants to allot one-quarter of the money to public transit operations to draw down additional federal grants. The rest could be used to back up about $75 million in state bonds, which would fund non-highway transportation projects, Rahn said.
Dolan and House Transportation Committee Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, quickly backed the proposal. Dolan's committee heard testimony Tuesday on a separate bill that would exempt highway contracting materials from the state sales tax.
Some lawmakers contend it makes no sense to charge the tax, because highway contractors pay it with state money.
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