St. Louis leaders press area's case for road money

Saturday, October 5, 2002

CLAYTON, Mo. -- The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission postponed a discussion of a new way to allocate highway money as St. Louis leaders objected Friday to any formula that would reduce funding for their region.

"If they want the support of the St. Louis region for future efforts, they can't continuously slap us in the face," said St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall. "We're not asking for a larger slice of the pie. We're asking that our slice remain the same."

The commission is considering whether to drop a funding method that gives half of state road money to the St. Louis and Kansas City areas and divides the other half among the rest of the state.

A discussion of three possible replacements, developed by Missouri Department of Transportation staff, was scheduled for Friday but was removed from the commission's meeting agenda.

Commission chairman Ollie Gates of Kansas City said the commission wants to gather more public opinion before changing the funding formula. It's possible, Gates and other commissioners said, that additional options could be developed before the commission's next meeting later this month.

"There is still some work to be done to make sure these options suit the taste of the whole," Gates said.

'There is a limit'

Westfall, who also serves as the chairman of the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, said the proposed changes to the formula could reduce the St. Louis region's share of transportation funding to 25 percent, down from the current 33 percent.

"Already, we're subsidizing outstate Missouri, but we're willing to do that, because every metropolitan area in the country does that," Westfall said. "But there is a limit to how much less we can get."

In all three options developed by transportation department staff, the St. Louis region loses the greatest share of existing funding, said Richard Fleming, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

What the region deserves, Westfall said, is a funding mechanism that keeps its share of transpiration funding about where it is now. He bristled at a suggestion, made by commissioner Barry Orscheln of Moberly, that the state should strive to bring all of its roads to an equal level of quality.

"Obviously, if only a few cars travel it, you can get by with less quality than you can if hundreds of thousands travel it," Westfall said. "That's not a standard to strive for, unless you have the resources to do it, and we don't."

Would lead charge

Westfall said if the commission adopts one of the three new funding options, he would "lead the charge" in Jefferson City seeking permission from lawmakers to create a regional taxing district that could fund transportation projects in the St. Louis area.

The creation of such a regional district likely would face fierce opposition from rural lawmakers concerned about its impact on the prospects of passing a statewide transportation tax.

Westfall said such opposition could be overcome if legislators from St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield work together.

Regional transportation districts were left out of a transportation plan referred by lawmakers to the August ballot. Proposition B, which would have raised the state's sales and motor fuel taxes, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

Gates said the commission wants to decide on any change to the funding formula by November. In the interim, the commission must try to get as much public input as possible, said commissioner Duane Michie of Caruthers-ville.

But trying to find a solution that can satisfy people from all parts of the state, Michie said, is "asking too much."

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