St. Louis groups oppose change in road funding split

Tuesday, January 7, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With state transportation officials poised to choose a funding-distribution plan to replace the current 50-50 split between urban and rural areas, representatives from the St. Louis region on Monday made a last-ditch appeal to preserve the size of their slice of the transportation pie.

Interested parties from around Missouri packed an auditorium to comment on four distribution options that have been under consideration for several months. The Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission plans to select one of the options, perhaps in a modified form, on Friday.

Since all four proposals put more emphasis on need rather than geography, each would shift more resources to outstate Missouri, where roads and bridges tend to be in worse shape than those in urban areas. However, Missouri Department of Transportation officials haven't calculated exactly how much more money would go to rural areas under the plans.

As they did when the options where first made public, St. Louis-area interests complained that any move away from the 50-50 division, which the commission first adopted in 1998, would be unfair.

St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall said that while the region contributes at least 40 percent of the tax revenue that goes into the state road fund, it currently receives only 33 percent of the money spent of highway construction. Westfall said the options currently on the table would drop the St. Louis area's share to as low as 28 percent.

"A compelling argument to be made is if you hurt St. Louis, you hurt the rest of the state," Westfall said. "We are willing to pay more than our fair share, which is the responsibility of a metropolitan areas, but please don't cut us more."

Richard Fleming, president and chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association, presented commissioners with two options that would put emphasis on population and employment statistics when calculating how funds are allocated. Such factors would benefit urban areas, particularly St. Louis.

"These proposals the MoDOT staff have put forward have shorted St. Louis , plain and simple," Fleming said, adding that he anticipates the commission will endorse one of the original options.

Fleming and Westfall both warned that St. Louis interests would be less inclined to support a future tax increase for MoDOT should the region's share of funding be reduced.

Fund for regional needs

Of the options offered by MoDOT, support among rural and Kansas City interests seems to be building for one that was drafted as a compromise after St. Louis representatives first made their complaints in October. While the first three put the greatest emphasis on taking care of the existing system, the fourth would provide more funds for regional needs.

However, Thomas Tucker, executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, said his group opposes the compromise proposal. He said Southeast Missouri would fare better under one of the original three options.

"Option 4 would further decrease the amount of dollars available for funding of the rural districts in favor of the metropolitan districts," Tucker said. "While we recognize the importance of our metropolitan areas and their transportation issues, we see very little new construction in the Southeast Missouri region, nor in most rural areas, and we have a considerable number of fatalities due to highway deficiencies."

Whatever distribution option the commission endorses, it won't affect projects the department has already committed to through fiscal year 2006 nor would it mandate that certain projects be built.

MoDOT chief engineer Kevin Keith said the new policy would be reviewed every three years.

"We don't believe it will be something that lasts forever," Keith said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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