Missouri’s highway department doesn’t exist for itself, but rather to serve the state’s residents and visitors who rely on all forms of transportation.
That was a key theme on Oct. 17 for the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce, which heard Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna talk about the agency’s financial woes. The occasion was St. Joe Rising, a quarterly networking program created by the chamber for a discussion of topical issues in the community. The event was held at Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center and drew 90 guests.
McKenna told the chamber his message included clearing up misconceptions about MoDOT’s mission. The agency, he said, exists to serve its residents rather than itself.
“What we’re talking about is investing in Missouri,” McKenna said.
A grasp of the funding is vital before solutions to long-term woes can be pursued, he added. To that end, MoDOT has prepared a draft of a citizens’ guide to transportation. The document is expected to appear on the department’s website, www.modot.org, in the next two weeks.
The guide will explain spending for road and bridge work, debt service and multimodal forms of transportation such as aviation. The information also will relate revenue sources, which McKenna said totaled just under $2.4 billion for fiscal year 2015. Meanwhile, spending amounted to $2.5 billion.
It’s estimated that transportation system replacement costs, including what’s needed for maintenance, operations and reconstruction, will rise to $125 billion.
McKenna took over as MoDOT director in December and has been working to comprehend its problems.
“What you have is an agency that is challenged for resources,” he said.
He praised the employees, saying the workforce’s efforts should not be characterized as resulting in inefficiency.
“We’re 1,200 people fewer today than in 2010,” he said of staff reductions.
Thirteen percent of MoDOT workers are eligible for public assistance, according to McKenna.
“That’s not right,” he told the audience. “It needs to be fixed. That’s something we need to talk about in public policy.”
Yet transportation’s revenues have been picking up lately.
“People are driving more,” McKenna said. “There’s economic activity going on.”
A transportation calculator has been created to help Missourians decipher how much investment they provide, in taxes such as those linked to motor fuels and fees like driver’s licenses, for the state’s network.
Approximately $200 million annually is needed just to take care of the transportation system, while $300 million is needed each year for major interstate reconstruction.
Increasing the state’s gas tax alone will not solve the funding crisis, McKenna said. Motor vehicle registrations and license fees have not risen since 1984, and the gas tax’s ability to bring its full funding power to bear has been eroded in half by inflation since 1996.
“I think it has to be multifaceted,” he said of the approach to locating adequate funds, such as instituting tolls for Interstate 70. “We have to kind of put all those things in the hopper.”
Voter approval of Proposition A, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would boost cigarette taxes and raise money for MoDOT projects, would act as one of the aids, he added.