Road to reality

Saturday, February 7, 2004

A few years ago, the Missouri Department of Transportation estimated that an additional $1 billion annually was required to fund all the projects the state needed. This projection followed the agency's decision in 1998 to junk a 15-year plan that promised to run a four-lane highway to every community of 5,000 people or more.

The legislature had helped fund the plan with a 6-cent-a-gallon increase in the fuel tax, but MoDOT contended the plan was based all along on cost projections that didn't add up.

In 2002, MoDOT failed to convince voters to increase the state fuel tax by another 4 cents a gallon to pay for the parts of the plan that were still in place. The vote came just as the dire reality of the state budget crisis was becoming clear.

When a team keeps losing, the manager usually is forced to leave. State transportation director Henry Hungerbeeler announced last year he would resign later this year. Hungerbeeler had no role in developing the 15-year plan but said he thinks the department would benefit from new leadership.

When Hungerbeeler gave the first State of Transportation address in Missouri history last week, he did not shrink from reminding legislators that the state's highways still need attention and it still is going to cost some money. But he did not propose the impossible on his way out.

He suggested toll roads as a new source of revenue. Hungerbeeler said toll roads should be used only on major projects.

MoDOT also would be better funded if highway user fees weren't diverted to other state agencies, Hungerbeeler said.

He has a point.

Routing transportation funding creates the impression that money taxpayers believe should be spent on roads is going for other purposes.

Hungerbeeler also pointed out that the state isn't making use of all the federal highway dollars it could. The federal government would make more money available if Missouri passed laws banning passengers from drinking alcohol in moving vehicles or allowing police to stop and ticket motorists for seat belt violations.

These are all sensible, relatively painless prescriptions for increasing revenue without raising taxes.

Hungerbeeler, a retired Air Force colonel who accepted his position with MoDOT in 1999, is well-respected by legislators. Many say he leaves MoDOT in better condition than when he came aboard.

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