MoDOT needs credibility, not politics

Saturday, September 21, 2002

By John L. Oliver Jr.

I have watched, with interest, the reaction of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and the staff of the Missouri Department of Transportation, including director Henry Hungerbeeler, to the rejection of Proposition B. I have also carefully sampled all of the newspaper reaction from around the state.

I fear that your staff is deflecting the commission's attention from an in-depth, objective evaluation of the current state of the commission and the department. Now that Proposition B, in the form presented to the public, has been rejected, I would, as a member of the traveling public and as the former vice chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, like to propose to the governor, the members of the Missouri Legislature and the members of the commission that they take the defeat of Proposition B as an opportunity to correct not only the deficiencies in the proposition, but also the fundamental flaws which led to its defeat. As a serious student of the problem since 1989, I would suggest the following:

1. The people of Missouri recognize that our roads are a disaster, and the people of Missouri as a whole do not appreciate the need for general-revenue funding of mass transportation, including its rural component.

Therefore, as a first proposition these matters should be separated.

2, The commission and the department must establish basic credibility. To do this, I suggest that the commission must begin by demonstrating to the public that the department has kept its word as given to the voters in 1987 and publish a Proposition A report card that demonstrates that all of the significant Proposition A projects are being constructed. The department received a tax increase based on a specific promise that specific projects would be completed. I believe that 41 projects have not been completed, and some have not been started. The department and commission must come clean.

3. Politics must be removed from commission decisions. The perception of a large portion of the public is that since 1993-94 commission decisions have been driven by a location of registered voters and not by need.

Whether true or not, the perception of politics must, therefore, be eradicated. To do this, I suggest that:

A. The size of the commission be increase to eight members.

B. The terms be truly staggered.

C. Replacements for resigned or deceased members only be allowed to serve out that term.

D. Most importantly, any sitting governor be prohibited from appointing more than four serving commissioners.

To ensure not only freedom from impropriety, but also from the appearance of impropriety, any person serving on the commission must be barred from participation in active party politics for at least three years after his or her term expires -- no office holding, no running for political office, no fund raising and no committee appointments.

4. The legislature must be honest with the public and stop the diversion of highway dollars. The cap on diversion, established in 1992, must be literally made absolute. New needed funding for the State Highway Patrol for its non-highway roles must come from general revenue. The Missouri Department of Revenue must be funded from general revenue. The half-cent sales tax currently diverted to that department must be given to MoDOT. No members of the governor's staff can be funded or financed from MoDOT funds. It is time to stop diverting statewide revenue to cities and counties, which can by law enact their own road taxes. The state should not pay for local roads any longer.

5. The legislature and commission together must eliminate bureaucratic bloating in the department -- bloating which has occurred in the name of accountability.

The department has at least six non-highway related executives with staffs whose salaries and support costs could build at least a mile or two of interstate a year and would approximately double the maintenance budgets in some districts. The position of director and the other positions created by politicians to gain political control have proven successful at only two things:

A. Unduly influencing decisions by political motivations.

B. Creating a bureaucratic bloat within the department.

The department runs well with a chief engineer, a secretary and a general counsel. It does not need non-road building, highly compensated bureaucrats.

The legislature and commission must be realistic. If there is a glut of maintenance sheds, then politics must be set aside and those sheds consolidated. Similarly, other cost savings available in the department must be allowed to be implemented, in spite of the political fallout.

It is only when Missourians know that the commission and department will keep its sacred word as pledged in 1987 in Proposition A and when the people are convinced that politics have been excised from the decision-making function and when, in fact, the bureaucratic bloat of the last nine years is purged will the people of this state support what everyone recognizes to be a crying need for improved maintenance and new construction.

John L. Oliver Jr. of Cape Girardeau is a lawyer. He is a former member of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and served as the commission's vice chairman. The viewpoints presented here were contained in a letter sent earlier this month to Ollie Gates, chairman of the commission.

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