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Opinion: Highway commission must listen, lead

Thursday, August 22, 2002

By John Lichtenegger

JACKSON, Mo. --Last week state Rep. Rod Jetton proposed reforms for the Missouri Department of Transportation. While his opinion is to be respected, I take serious issue with some of his preconceived thoughts and misgivings about the method of highway commissioner selection in Missouri. I further disagree with four of the five remedies he proposed.

If you wait for the reforms he suggested, which Jetton sees as conditions precedent for his support, another tax increase for MoDOT will not occur. Except for his anti-skimming proposal, the reforms he proposed will not and should not become law, and here's why:

1. The political process of having the governor appoint members to the Highways and Transportation Commission, Conservation Commission, Board of Curators, State Board of Education and many other boards is deeply rooted in the Missouri Constitution. This system has worked extremely well in most instances. The Missouri Department of Conservation is the envy of the entire United States.

Incidentally, the late Andy Runge, a Republican political activist, referred to by Republicans and Democrats alike as the father of the conservation department, was appointed by Gov. Kit Bond and continued to work to assist in building arguably the finest conservation department in the country. Ashcroft later appointed Runge to the University of Missouri Board of Curators. Runge was a great public servant.

The cynicism that Jetton invokes and incites when declaring that both parties have been guilty of stacking the commission with their people who have only watched out for their special interests is just plain false.

Highway commissioners have for the most part been widely acclaimed, highly respected individuals. All have been approved by the Missouri Senate.

Gov. John Ashcroft in his appointments did not use the criteria Jetton suggests, nor did Ashcroft appoint or stack the highway commission with people who have only watched out for their special interests. To the contrary, whether the highway commission, Board of Regents or Board of Curators, Ashcroft made it clear to those appointed that they served the state, not geographical areas. He sought out folks who had statewide, national or global vision. Some were political activists. His commissioners did an excellent job.

A great example was John L. Oliver of Cape Girardeau. Oliver, a lifelong Democrat (graduated first in his law class at the University of Missouri-Columbia) was appointed in 1990 to the highway commission by Ashcroft. Oliver and other commissioners appointed by Ashcroft did an outstanding job for the entire state. Other commissioners had similar credentials.

I also have no evidence to support Jetton's contention that Gov. Mel Carnahan's appointees, other than S. Lee Kling from St. Louis, diverted our road funds on their special interests. The Carnahan appointees did abandon the 15-year plan, which was a critical mistake. It would take another long article to review the depth of that error.

2. Highway commissioners are citizen appointees who receive no compensation. It is an honor and privilege to receive such an appointment. Because they are appointed for a term and cannot be recalled, they can do their job without fear of political or other retaliation. This immunity from the political process is good and has worked well to limit the influence of politics from road building. To exclude commissioners from attending political functions, after their appointments, would seriously deplete the pool of qualified, respected individuals.

The Missouri Constitution provides for an equal member of Republicans and Democrats to be appointed to the highway commission. In the past, a bipartisan commission has worked well with a nonpartisan director to determine road building and road maintenance issues. The system is not broke.

To require the commission to seek Missouri Senate approval of a road-project list each year, as Jetton proposes, would be paralytic and grind the bureaucracy to an even slower pace.

The people of this state must agree by majority vote on a statewide plan if major new roads are to be built. MoDOT must listen to the people, consult with mayors, legislators, farm organizations, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs and other organizations to build consensus, not bureaucratic walls that separate the people from the commissioners. The commissioners are good non-parochial folks just like us. They have been misguided by some department heads. It s now their turn to show leadership.

3. Jetton is right concerning the diversion of highway funds to other non-highway departments. That diversion must stop.

4. Accountability to the people, not the legislature, is needed. MoDOT's bureaucracy needs to listen to the people who pay the gas taxes. For the past several years, MoDOT as a whole has failed to listen and then respond appropriately.

Public hearings on road projects are held widely and often, but MoDOT's staff has used those hearings to tell the people what is good for them and what MoDOT is going to do. MoDOT has squandered opportunity time and time again by not listening to the people they serve at these hearings.

The best example of this locally is the Highway 34-72 widening project in Jackson where MoDOT summarily has ignored almost 2,000 Cape Girardeau County residents and businesses who have petitioned for a five-lane unlimited access highway (just like East Jackson Boulevard to the interstate) rather than the four-lane corridor with a bike trail sought by MoDOT. Mid- and upper-level officials in MoDOT are responsible in this instance for giving the commissioners a black eye. The commissioners shows signs now of taking matters into their own hands and ordering the approach suggested in this article.

5. You simply cannot approve funds for new roads and bridges and have the funds vanish in five years. Jetton's proposal would have us voting every five years on gas taxes. A commitment for the infrastructure of this state must be at least for a period of 10 years or longer. Five years is too soon to sunset a new road tax. Maintenance and repair of roads and widening of one-lane bridges need to be the cornerstone of any new proposal by MoDOT.

Most likely any tax increase of any kind would have failed to receive voter approval this year because of so many areas of loss by so many Missourians. The highway commission must listen to the people and many other organizations and cities interested in building and maintaining a good road and bridge system. We have good commissioners. They need to take control of MoDOT and do a better job. The constitutional changes suggested by Jetton will not help and are not needed.

Let's start working today to talk, listen and understand Missouri's needs. A strong maintenance plan first, and new roads projects next. There is no need to change the Missouri Constitution because one tax increase failed. A lot of folks like me didn't like the plan, and a lot of folks simply didn't want to pay more taxes at this time.

John Lichtenegger is a lawyer.


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