St. Louis interests blast split in road funding

Saturday, October 5, 2002

CLAYTON, Mo. -- It's back to the drawing board on a new policy for distributing state transportation funds after St. Louis-area interests on Friday blasted proposals they said would unfairly strip the region of revenue for the benefit of rural Missouri.

The State Highways and Transportation Commission met in the St. Louis County seat with the intent of discussing three options for ending its 4-year-old policy of allocating transportation revenue evenly between urban and rural areas and replacing it with one that prioritizes projects on a "worst first" basis.

But the commission's efforts to end the regionally divisive 50-50 split brought harsh words from St. Louis-area government and business leaders, who said the region already is getting less than it deserves from the Department of Transportation.

St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall said the options were "simply and blatantly biased against St. Louis" and that area leaders would do whatever they could to stop the commission from enacting any of the new proposals.

"There may not be any legal options, but there are certainly political options down the road," Westfall said, adding that MoDOT never would win voter approval of a transportation tax increase without the support of the region's electorate.

In the end, the commission shelved the planned presentation on proposed funding distribution changes and is expected to consider other alternatives at its next meeting.

"It sounds to me like we need another option," said commission chairman Ollie Gates of Kansas City.

MoDOT officials have not calculated a percentage breakdown of what the urban-rural split would be under any of the options offered to date. Spokesman Jeff Briggs said such percentages weren't figured because the purpose of changing the funding distribution policy is to move beyond regionalism in the department's decision making.

However, since the majority of Missouri's deficient roads and bridges are in rural areas, any move toward a needs-based allocation of funds would heavily favor rural Missouri.

Commissioner Duane Michie of Hayti said he wasn't perturbed by the St. Louis opposition and is keeping an open mind concerning a new funding distribution system.

"I don't know where we're going with this," Michie said. "We are just listening to the options."

Southeast region's place

Under the options drafted to date, MoDOT's Southeast Missouri district would rank either fourth or fifth in total money received among the department's 10 districts, with the St. Louis and Kansas City districts still topping the list.

With voter rejection of a half-billion dollar transportation tax hike in August, MoDOT is shifting its focus from new construction to improving the existing system. However, the department is committed to finishing all the projects promised in its current five-year plan.

MoDOT hopes to begin implementing its new funding-distribution policy, whatever form it ultimately takes, in 2005 with the process completed in 2007.

Richard Fleming, the president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association, said reducing the area's share of highway funds, which is roughly one-third of the statewide total, "violates all logic and understanding" as the region is the economic engine of the state.

"That would be a very serious blow to the St. Louis region, its citizens, its economic future and the state," Fleming said.

Craig Schnuck, chairman and chief executive officer of Schnucks Supermarkets, said the St. Louis area provides 46 percent of the wages and salaries paid in Missouri, 41 percent of the jobs and 38 percent of the sales tax revenue. Therefore, he said, the region is doing far more than its part to support the rest of the state and shouldn't have its share of highway funds reduced.

"The St. Louis region will not and can not stand by and let this happen," Schnuck said.

Commissioner Barry Orscheln of Moberly took issue, as he has in the past, with the characterization of the 50-50 funding split as a historical division.

"You talk as if this has been in stone for a long time," Orscheln said, noting that policy was first adopted in 1998. Prior to that year, the distribution skewed 60 percent rural.

In terms of funding distribution, Orscheln said commissioners should not be forever bound by the actions of past commissions, but have the flexibility to address the situation as they see fit.

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