Senators question state's ranking in road spending

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Senate panel meeting Tuesday searched for solutions to Missouri's transportation funding problems and questioned the accuracy of a statistic state transportation officials often cite to bolster their contention the state's highways are poorly funded compared to other states.

In seeking to build legislative and public support for new revenue, Missouri Department of Transportation officials have long said the state is 47th in the nation in spending per mile despite having the seventh-largest highway system. According to MoDOT, it spends $38,831 per mile to maintain approximately 32,000 miles of roads.

However, about 24,000 of those miles are supplemental highways -- lettered routes often called farm-to-market roads.

In most other states, such roads are the responsibility of local governments and local taxpayers, and aren't maintained with state transportation revenue. Missouri began adding supplemental highways to the state system in the 1950s to relieve the financial burden on poorer counties.

State Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis, said that although supplemental highways make up three-fourths of the state system, they are not as costly to maintain as major highways and interstates, possibly skewing Missouri's standing as compared to other states.

"We have a larger amount of mileage that isn't all that expensive to maintain," Goode said.

While not disputing MoDOT claims that more revenue is needed for transportation, Goode asked Senate researchers to gather data either including what local money is spent on other states' supplemental highways or taking Missouri's spending on such roads out of the mix.

"I think that is important information for us to have a meaningful comparison to where we stand with other states," Goode said.

MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler said spending per mile is a useful means of comparison but not perfect, because all 50 states fund roads in different ways.

The Senate Transportation Committee will resume work today to gather input for possible transportation-funding legislation for the General Assembly to consider when it convenes in January.

Hungerbeeler offered committee members plans on what MoDOT could do with $1 billion more a year, which department officials say they need to meet all public expectations, and $600 million a year, which is close to the price tag of a transportation bill that died in the Legislature this year.

Hungerbeeler's presentation prompted an annoyed response from state Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway and the committee chairman. Westfall said he requested that Hungerbeeler discuss what MoDOT would do with an additional $200 million and $600 million, with breakdowns at $100 million increments within that range. "If you want new revenue and enhance MoDOT's credibility, you're blowing it," Westfall said.

Hungerbeeler apologized but said without revenue in the higher ranges he discussed, MoDOT "cannot do what is expected of us."

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