Area businesspeople along with federal and state government officials gathered Wednesday in Cape Girardeau to hear about issues facing transportation and to give their ideas about how to address those issues at the first day of the Southeast Missouri Regional Transportation Summit.
The summit, held at Ray's Plaza Conference Center, runs through today and is an inaugural effort hosted by the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce.
John Mehner, chamber president, welcomed those in attendance Wednesday and announced that the summit had two purposes.
"The first purpose is to inform you today on what is going on in the world of transportation," he said. "The second will be to receive your input during Thursday's session on how to best tackle Missouri's transportation problems."
Wednesday's speakers focused on the challenges facing maintaining and improving the state's aging transportation infrastructure, among them a lack of funding for needed projects.
Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson said that the banning of earmarks -- a legislative provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects -- in Congress has hampered her efforts to bring more funding to the Missouri Department of Transportation.
"There is no issue more important than a good transportation-infrastructure system," she said. "Progress was made when MoDOT turned highway 60 into four lanes, and they came through again when highway 67 was also four-laned. But, with the elimination of earmarks, it's the administration that is parceling out highway money and not Congress. I can't get funding for MoDOT the way I've been able to in past years."
However, Emerson said that she will continue to fight for funding no matter who holds the purse strings.
"I hope the summit will produce ideas that will create an environment where our economy can prosper," she said. "Job creation and the rebuilding of our infrastructure through a strong MoDOT will lay the foundation for our economy to grow."
MoDOT director Kevin Keith also spoke Wednesday and echoed Emerson's concerns about funding.
"Transportation can help the economy," he said, "but the problem is how we get the funding for it."
Keith said the funding that MoDOT receives from the legislature has become tightened due to economic realities, and the fuel tax that Missourians pay at the pump that provides for MoDOT funding hasn't changed since 1992.
"The fuel tax has become less productive in recent years," he said. "And with the rise in the cost of gasoline, more fuel-efficient cars and even electric ones, the consequence is that less fuel-tax money is coming in to fund transportation projects. It's a problem that's not going away anytime soon."
Keith noted that MoDOT has little recourse but to keep existing roads and bridges in as good as condition as possible, but they'll only get worse in time. He hoped that new answers to the problems could come from the summit.
"We need a consensus on what to move forward with when it comes to meeting funding challenges," he said.
Bill McKenna, spokesman for the not-for-profit Missouri Transportation Alliance and co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Citizens Commission on Missouri's Transportation Needs, said that $700 million is the amount needed for MoDOT to keep things the way the are now, but with the fuel-tax revenue going down a little more every year, Missourians will have to take care of the problem themselves.
"An increase in the fuel tax of perhaps 24 cents per gallon would help MoDOT greatly," he said, "but with the cost of gas the way it is, that's probably not going to fly. We need to look to other solutions, such as a sales tax that will go directly for transportation funding or perhaps an increase in the state's licensing fees. Toll booths are another option."
Like the previous two speakers at the summit, McKenna expressed a desire that answers to existing problems could be hatched at the summit.
"The solutions won't be easy," he said, "but with the people we have in this room, I'm positive that something new can come about."
The summit continues at 8:45 a.m. today at Ray's Plaza Conference Center.
3257 William St., Cape Girardeau, MO