Editorial

No solutions for highways? Why not?

Friday, November 2, 2001

The grim overview of Missouri's highway funding situation presented this week in Cape Girardeau by Barry Orscheln from Moberly, Mo., a member of the Highways and Transportation Commission, was sobering. But it also further compounded some of the misunderstandings many Missourians -- and, obviously, commissioners whose task it is to unravel this mess -- have about the situation.

For example, the affable Orscheln said at the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce's annual transportation dinner that he's tired of hearing that the 15-year highway plan adopted in 1992 has been abandoned. He said every highway project started since then has been a project that was on the 15-year plan's list. But it was the highway commission that announced that it was discarding the plan. Who are Missourians to believe when it comes to highways?

Neither is it accurate for Orscheln nor any other highway commissioner nor any Missouri Department of Transportation official to leave the impression that the funding gap for the 15-year plan -- now estimated at $19 billion -- was somehow the fault of everyone except MoDOT and its commissioners.

No sugarcoating for wake-up call

Orscheln's speech was a blunt wake-up call to Missourians who wonder how the state's future highway needs will be met. At least he didn't sugarcoat the message. But the visiting commissioner continued to compare apples and oranges -- maybe prunes and kumquats -- in bemoaning how much funding MoDOT gets compared to other states.

The official line these days is that Missouri is at the bottom of the list when it comes to total funding for each mile of state-maintained highway. While that statistic is mathematically correct, it is also misleading. Here's why: Missouri has a long history, dating back to the Truman era, of developing state roads, highways and bridges under the auspices of the state highway department. As a result, Missouri has thousands more miles of state-maintained roads and highways than almost all other states. Other state highway departments are basically responsible just for major highways, while counties and other local jurisdictions build and maintain roads that are familiar to us as lettered highways: Route A, Route O and so forth.

Comparisons don't tell whole story

As Orscheln accurately observed during his speech, 40 percent of Missouri's bridges are considered deficient, and most of those are in rural areas.

Another accurate observation by Orscheln was that Missouri's fuel tax -- the extra amount motorists pay at the pump every time they fill up -- is among the lowest in the nation. But when MoDOT folks say it, they manage to make it sound like Missourians have been negligent because they didn't push for more taxes. The plain fact is that MoDOT -- or hardly anyone else -- hasn't asked for any increase in the fuel tax since the 6-cent boost that was phased in after the 15-year plan was adopted. Missourians were told in no uncertain terms the 6-cent increase would pay the bill. Even though the highway department has broken its pledge to give us the projects in the 15-year plan, we continue to pay the extra fuel tax that was supposed to pay for it.

As with so many other things in Missouri, having one of the lowest fuel-tax rates is not all bad. We have one of the largest state-run road systems with one of the lowest tax rates. There's something good to be said for that.

Orscheln also brought up the rebuilding of I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City as if the necessity for that project, currently estimated to cost $3.5 billion, is real. While the need for a new superhighway across the state is popular in some quarters, the idea in other areas, particularly rural Missouri, is about as popular as taxpayer support for a new baseball stadium in St. Louis.

Finally, the biggest disappointment in Orscheln's speech was his frank admission that he had no solutions to the many problems he outlined. That's too bad. Missouri's highway commissioners have a long history of ably serving the transportation needs of the Show Me State. It's a shame that an embattled MoDOT and the commissioners who set its policy have all but thrown up their hands.

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