Ports get voice on transportation panel
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The amount of money the state will spend this year to operate its entire system of ports is roughly equivalent to its spending on a mere 12 miles of highway.
Because roads are vital in linking all regions of Missouri, that segment of the Department of Transportation's budget will always overwhelmingly eclipse what is allocated for ports. However, Gov. Bob Holden's appointment on Monday of Pemiscot County Port Authority chairman Duane Michie of Caruthersville, Mo., to MoDOT's governing commission will give waterways advocates a voice in state transportation policy they previously lacked.
Michie, 62, has served on the Pemiscot County port board for more than 25 years, the majority of that time as chairman. He said his membership on the six-member Highways and Transportation Commission will provide a forum for airing the needs of ports, which are often overlooked during the constant battles over highway funding.
"Ports are a very important part of the package, particularly for communities around a river," Michie said. "Ports also affect a lot of people away from rivers, though they don't know it. So much is shipped into the state by barge, but they don't see it."
Many of the goods people buy and use every day or the raw materials needed in their manufacture are shipped via river barge, Michie said.
For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, MoDOT will distribute $469,987 for operating expenses at 13 port authorities, six of which are fully operational with seven others under development. That is a relative pittance compared to the average of $38,831 a mile the department says it spends each year to maintain 32,000 miles of state highways.
While the bulk of revenue from the state's 17-cent-a-gallon fuel tax is earmarked for MoDOT and allocated at the discretion of the highways commission, funding requests for ports are subject to the General Assembly's normal budget process and must compete against other spending needs.
Sherrie Martin, MoDOT's waterways program manager, said four Southeast Missouri ports account for 68 percent of the state's spending on ports. Three of those ports -- at Scott City, Caruthersville and New Madrid -- are operational, while a fourth near New Bourbon is under development.
Dan Overby, executive director of the SEMO Port Authority at Scott City, has worked closely with Michie on port matters. Overby said Michie will provide a a much needed perspective concerning port needs.
"I think he will do very well," Overby said. "He is not one to sit on the back row and be quiet."
Securing capital improvement money for ports will be a key task for Michie, Overby said. The Legislature approved $6.1 million for port improvements in 2000, $4.4 million of which was to go to Southeast Missouri's four ports. However, that money has been withheld since July 2000 for a number of reasons, the latest being a tight state budget.
Overby said the revenue requested for ports would be money well spent.
"Six million -- that is the cost of one small interchange," Overby said. "Six million would do something important for ports all around the state. That is a lot of bang for the buck."
Despite his background with ports, Michie said he is interested in improving all modes of transportation in Missouri, including aviation, mass transit, rail and, of course, highways.
Better ports mean little, he said, without sufficient highway and rail access to move products in and out and enhance statewide economic development.
"This is just part of the intermodal link but an important part to consider," Michie said.
As president and chief executive officer of First State Bank & Trust Co. Inc. at Caruthersville, Michie also brings financial experience to the commission, which has come under fire in recent years for MoDOT's 1992 highway plan. The commission abandoned the plan in 1998 after determining it was built on faulty financial projections.
However, Michie said he doesn't yet have an opinion on whether MoDOT needs the $1 billion a year in new revenue department officials are asking for. A proposed tax hike for transportation looks to be a key issue before the Legislature when it convenes in January.
Michie, who will be one of three Republican commissioners, will be sworn in Friday at the commission's meeting in Kansas City. However, his appointment and those of two Democratic commissioners Holden named in October will be subject to Senate approval after the legislative session begins.
Two key Senate Republicans -- President Pro Tem Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau and state Sen. Bill Foster of Poplar Bluff -- have both said they will support Michie during the confirmation process.