Q&A - MoDOT recovering its credibility, director says

Monday, November 12, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Henry Hungerbeeler is familiar with conflict. Since becoming director of the Missouri Department of Transportation in March 1999, he's continued to see an ample amount of combat.

Hungerbeeler took over an embattled department vilified for breaking its promises to Missouri taxpayers and not providing needed transportation improvements. It wasn't a problem of his creation, but solving it has been the focus of his efforts.

From Hungerbeeler's perspective, the only way to address the state's transportation needs is with additional money, at least $1 billion more a year. How to raise that revenue, he says, is up to the people of Missouri and their elected representatives.

However, talk of a tax increase for MoDOT always revives the specter of the department's failed 1992 15-year transportation plan, which was long on promises but short on revenue due to shoddy financial projections. It was the State Highways and Transportation Commission's 1998 decision to abandon the plan as the financial blueprint for new road construction that created the mistrust of MoDOT and helped kill a proposed transportation funding proposal this year in the Legislature.

However, Hungerbeeler says the situation is improving. New leadership on the commission, which under the state Constitution runs MoDOT free from interference by lawmakers or the governor, has prompted some department critics to have more of an open mind about new funding.

Hungerbeeler, who retired from the military as a colonel, says the organizational skills and familiarity with large, complex organizations he gained in the Air Force have been invaluable to him in running MoDOT, a department with more than 6,000 employees that maintains 32,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges.

That military background will also be helpful in his new role as head of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Task Force on Transportation Security. The panel was formed last month to assess the vulnerability of the nation's transportation system to terrorism.

During a Thursday interview in his office at MoDOT headquarters, Hungerbeeler discussed that role, as well as the department's past failures and future goals.

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.Missourian: Are you satisfied with your tenure so far?

Hungerbeeler: I think things are on the upswing. I am very pleased with the changes in attitude that I am perceiving from my meetings with the public. I'm pleased with the relationships I have with members of the General Assembly. But have things gone as quickly as I would like toward the vision that we hope to achieve? No.

I believe we are picking up momentum. I am seeing changes within the department that I think will help us provide a better product and better service to the public.

What I don't see yet is a consensus on how to raise additional funds, but that's not for us at MoDOT to decide or necessarily even influence. Missourian: Gov. Holden's recent appointments to the highways commission have garnered positive reviews. Do you see the changes in commission leadership as having a positive impact on the funding effort?

Hungerbeeler: Yes, I do. That's not to say that the former commissioners did anything wrong. Perhaps they were wrongfully accused of things that were not their fault. I don't know. Maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The truth, as I understand it, is that people within the department, within the commission, within the General Assembly and in other places back in 1992 promised more stuff for a 6-cent fuel tax than they could ever possibly deliver. Someone had to own up to that fact, and it was the commissioners that had to do that. So it was an issue of "let's kill the messenger."

Since that time, of course, we have new leadership in the department. None of the people who were here in '92 are still here. It's even removed from what it was in '98 when they made the announcement of the problems we were having with the '92 plan. Missourian: Has it been frustrating to constantly deal with a mess you had no part in creating?

Hungerbeeler: Yes, it is frustrating. But I suppose you could go back to Adam and Eve and say that we're all dealing with things that we didn't create. I don't think anyone had bad intentions in 1992. And I don't necessarily think anyone was even negligent. I wasn't here in '92, and I can't explain what happened. But I am perfectly willing to be held accountable for everything happening now.Missourian: During a recent speech, you made an interesting point: That those who decry a lack of accountability at MoDOT perhaps do so because the state Constitution prevents them from forcing their will on the department. Could you expound on that?

Hungerbeeler: Well, it's just an observation I've made in the last couple of years. Accountability seems to mean different things to different people. When I was in the Air Force, I was held accountable for the lives of the people that served under me, for the equipment and property that we had and for accomplishing a mission. I was certainly not an elected official, yet there seems to be a perception that only elected officials or those appointed by elected officials can be held accountable, because otherwise they can't be removed at the ballot box. I just find that a different meaning of accountability than I'm used to.

I consider myself accountable to the people of Missouri for doing the things that MoDOT is supposed to do, for providing the best service at the best price that we can possibly provide. I'm also accountable to the commissioners. They are the people who hired me.Missourian: Some have suggested changing the commission structure. Do you feel this is a situation of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it?"

Hungerbeeler: Yes. Now, some people think it's broken. I don't agree with them. There are some who think the commission should be more representative of different parts of the state. Certainly, we need to have on the commission a knowledge of the different parts of the state. But I feel the staff does a good job of providing that.

We have 10 MoDOT districts. The district engineer in each of those districts represents the people of those districts. I think the commission does an outstanding job of looking at the competing interests across the entire state and establishing priorities within the financial constraints they have to operate in.

I have seen commissions appointed in different ways across the nation. For example, some states do have a highway commissioner from each congressional district or each highway district. What I have seen in more cases than not is those commissioners become very parochial.Missourian: Describe your role as head of the new national transportation security task force.

Hungerbeeler: We met in Washington, D.C., last week. Most of the topics were classified by the federal government, so I can't get into the details. But we were concerned with the safety and security of all of those who use our transportation system. There are different things to be concerned about with aviation, transit, railroads, waterways and highways. Each one of them have unique aspects.

A terrorist is trying to affect as many people as he can. It is difficult on a highway to kill as many people at one time as you could with an airplane or train. But it's possible to do some things to components of the highway system that would affect a lot of people economically. For example, a large number of very long coal trains leave the state of Wyoming every day for points in the eastern part of the United States. They all have to cross Mississippi River bridges. So, the closure of one railroad bridge across the Mississippi River could make lights go out on the East Coast.

We're looking for those critical nodes that could have the gravest consequences if we were to lose them. Missourian: Do you foresee Congress pumping defense money into upgrading the national highway system, which was originally created to allow for swift movement of troops and equipment?

Hungerbeeler: I think they will. There are several things being talked about in Congress, and I can't predict how they will turn out. We believe a component of the economic stimulus package should be work on our highway infrastructure. The federal highway administration said that a $1 billion investment in highway infrastructure will create 42,000 jobs. If we had $1 billion here in Missouri, which is what we need, that would create 42,000 jobs here in the state. To me, that's just a tremendous argument for doing what we need to do anyway.Missourian: How do you go about convincing voters to increase taxes to get the highway improvements they want?

Hungerbeeler: I'm not trying to convince them they should pay more taxes. How they raise the money is up to them. Whether or not they raise the money is up to them. What we intend to do is to tell the people of Missouri exactly what the commission has said we will do with that additional money, should it come. People will clearly know exactly what they are going to get in the next five to 10 years without additional money and what things they will get with additional money.Missourian: In 1992, the public was also told exactly what they were going to get for the 6-cent fuel tax hike. How can they be sure that this time the financial projections are sound?

Hungerbeeler: In 1997, the commission created the position of chief operating officer. A few months later they created the position of chief financial officer. These were skills we had never had in the department before. So, we have been able to develop analytical methods since then far superior to anything we ever used before. We will never again make the elementary mistake of not factoring in inflation.

I'm not aware of any other department of transportation that has ever put out a 15-year plan with the degree of specificity that we did in 1992. If there is one lesson to learn from that is we will probably never do that again.Missourian: What is the outlook for Missouri's transportation system?

Hungerbeeler: If we don't communicate the facts to the public in a way they can understand, the situation is going to be really bad. Right now the public is seeing record construction years one after another. We had one last year, we're having one this year and we'll have another next year. But the year after that, we're going to be back to low levels they haven't seen in a decade. We are going to find ourselves in a situation where we literally do not have enough money to do anything other than repairs.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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