MoDOT to drop urban, rural criteria as funding basis

Sunday, August 25, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- For four years, state transportation officials have endured intense criticism from around the state for their policy of dividing available funds for road and bridge construction evenly between urban and rural areas. Spurred in part by overwhelming voter rejection this month of a transportation tax package, that policy is slated to be dropped.

However, whatever distribution system is instituted as a replacement will inevitably create winners and losers and, if history is a guide, fan the fires of the urban versus rural funding debate.

Missouri Department of Transportation planners are preparing two distribution options that will be presented to the State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT's governing board, on Sept. 14. Chief engineer Kevin Keith declined to discuss the details of those options in advance of the commission meeting, but said that ensuring that roughly half of MoDOT's available resources automatically go for projects in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas will no longer be the criteria used.

"Urban/rural as the basis for the funding split -- nobody wants to do that anymore," Keith said. "I'm not sure how we got there in the first place."

Adopted in 1998

The commission adopted the 50-50 division in 1998 when it announced that its 15-year construction plan, passed in 1992, was woefully underfunded. Under that plan, roughly 60 percent of the spending was earmarked for rural projects.

Duane Michie of Hayti, who joined the commission last year, said MoDOT's resources should be allocated based on need, not geography. Michie hasn't yet seen the proposed options.

"If we've got highways that need to be rebuilt and brought back to good condition, they need to tell us where they are and get on with it," Michie said. "I don't know the criteria we use to make that determination, but we've got to have a fair balance to this."

One problem that has dogged the commission in recent years is that different people have different ideas on what constitutes needs and fairness.

In December 2000, the commission, which has since replaced three of its six members, rejected a proposal for a needs-based distribution that would have secured 63 percent of the department's spending for rural Missouri, where the vast majority of the states' deficient roads and bridges are located. Urban commissioners complained the proposal was weighted to rural needs and ignored urban needs, such as reducing traffic congestion and spurring economic development.

Mike Right, a St. Louis-based vice president of AAA Auto Club of Missouri, said such urban-specific needs should not be overlooked, especially given the urban contribution to transportation funding, which comes primarily from fuel taxes and vehicle license fees. AAA was part of the coalition of groups that unsuccessfully pushed for the passage of Proposition B, a $483 million tax package voters defeated on Aug. 6.

Finding correct criteria

Right said basing a distribution formula solely on vehicle miles traveled, as suggested by the Missouri Farm Bureau, would unfairly skew funding to rural areas.

However, Farm Bureau's Estil Fretwell said vehicle miles traveled is an objective criteria for allocating resources. Farm Bureau has been among the most vocal opponents of the 50-50 split.

"We have gone from putting money where people live rather than where people drive," Fretwell said.

Despite the turnover on the commission, Fretwell said Farm Bureau remains skeptical of the panel's ability to develop and stick with an equitable distribution system.

"The pattern seems to be if the result is not to the commissioners' satisfaction, they keep looking until they get the answer they want," Fretwell said.

Any new method for allocating funds would, in the short term, apply only to the final year of MoDOT's latest rolling five-year construction plan, which will cover 2003 through 2007. The commission has vowed to keep the commitments already made for the first four years of the plan.

The department's current five-year plan carries an estimated cost of $4.8 billion. Because of a delay while waiting for the outcome of Proposition B, MoDOT officials have not completed their revised five-year plan and were unsure of its total cost, which is expected to be significantly less than the current plan.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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