Roads panel looks to south

Friday, November 2, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is going south.

If you live in southern Missouri, that's probably a good thing.

Gov. Bob Holden's two recent picks for the panel both hail from the lower half of the state. The governor will have another vacancy to fill in December and is strongly considering a Bootheel man for the post.

If that happens, the commission would have a much more southern flavor than in recent years.

Commissioners past and present have maintained they serve the whole state, not local interests. But because the panel decides state transportation policy and where and how highway money is spent, it's nice to have a commissioner from your area.

Changes coming

Until recently, the commission had two St. Louis-area members, one from Kansas City and one each from northeast and northwest Missouri. William C. Gladden of Houston, Mo., whose term ended last month, was the only commissioner from southern Missouri.

After the changes are complete, the state's two largest metropolitan areas and northeast Missouri will each have one member. The two newest commissioners are Bill McKenna of Crystal City, Mo., about 30 miles south of St. Louis in Jefferson County, and Jim Anderson of Springfield, Mo.

Banker and Pemiscot County Port Authority chairman Duane Michie of Caruthersville, Mo., is on Holden's short list to replace Edward D. Douglas of Chillicothe, Mo.

While those in northwest Missouri are loath to lose their representation on the Department of Transportation's governing body when Douglas' term ends, many in Southeast Missouri feel the region is due for a seat at the table. Southeast Missouri has been without a representative on the commission since October 1997, when H. Mark Pryor of Kennett, Mo., stepped down after serving only 21 months of his term.

Northeast concerned

State Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, said he spoke with Holden in May and argued that Southeast Missouri, and the Bootheel in particular, is deserving of a commission spot after more than four years without.

"The governor said that was a valid point, and he would work with me to see that happen," Foster said.

Kevin Fuller, the assistant district engineer for MoDOT's Macon-based district, said people in northern Missouri are somewhat worried about Douglas' spot going to Southeast Missouri.

"I think that concern is out there," Fuller said. "Everyone around the state wants to be represented."

Foster said changes are needed to the commission's structure to ensure no region is left out. When the legislative session begins in January, Foster plans to propose a constitutional amendment to expand the number of commissioners to 10 -- one from each of MoDOT's regional districts.

"I have always believed we should have one highway commissioner per highway district," Foster said.

While Foster's proposal would enhance geographical representation -- the southern half of the state alone would have four commissioners -- it would also tilt the balance of power overwhelmingly in favor of rural Missouri, leaving Kansas City and St. Louis with a combined two seats out of 10. That likely wouldn't play well among residents of the two urban districts, which account for 54 percent of Missouri's population.

The Legislature passed on a similar, though population-based, approach this year. That plan called for nine commissioners -- one from each congressional district. The proposal is expected to be revived in 2002.

While not as favorable to rural areas as Foster's plan, such a restructuring would spread commission seats more evenly around the state, while still guaranteeing the Kansas City and St. Louis areas at least four spots.

Proposed changes to the commission passed by the Legislature would still require voter approval.

Anderson, one of the new commissioners, said the panel currently does a good job of looking beyond the regional interests of individual members.

"Are there ideas that should be discussed? Yes," Anderson said. "But my sense is the current structure works."

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