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MoDOT director says department is treading water

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna says his department is facing a number of challenges in their efforts to maintain the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“Essentially, right now, we’re treading water,” he said. “We’re maintaining our system, but we are not improving. We’re fixing and replacing about as many bridges each year as fall into the ‘poor’ category, and we believe that Missourians want more. Our transportation system faces a long-term insufficient funding challenge.”

To fix that, MoDOT is requesting a total budget of $2.81 billion dollars.

When compared to other states, Missouri has the seventh largest network of highways in bridges but ranks 47th in revenue per mile.

Patrick McKenna
Patrick McKenna

“Our revenue per mile is just over $50,000, while the national average is $216,000,” McKenna said.”That disparity causes two situations that we address through our management: a struggle to maintain the system in the condition which it is in today, and an inability to invest in new projects that increase economic development opportunities.

“The good news is that the core revenue is up. That’s been a trend for the last two years. We’re incorporating that revenue from gas taxes, motor vehicle sales and license and registration fees, and we’re making sure that we are maximizing the amount of construction that we can do on the highway system.”

He also touted the fact that the department was ranked as the second lowest administrative cost Department of Transportation in the nation by the Reason Foundation.

Last year, McKenna and the department were discussing their five-year capital plan, which would use roughly 325 million per year to maintain and improve the 33,873 miles of highway and 10,394 bridges that MoDOT oversees.

McKenna says a number of changes have occurred since then, and long term funding at the federal level and user fees from Missourians have enabled them to increase their capital investment by approximately eight percent. He added the department will now spend $4.4 billion, roughly $880 million per year, of their existing money on projects between the five-year period of 2018 to 2022, stating in June.

“Right now, about 90 percent of our major roads and 78 percent of our minor roads drive smooth, and are in relatively good condition,” McKenna said. “We have 866 bridges in poor condition and about 1300 that have weight restrictions.”

While McKenna said they are in line with the most of the recommendations made by Gov. Eric Greitens, the governor’s recommended budget is $26.3 million less than the department requested.

One thing they are requesting is a 1.7 percent pay raise across the board for MoDOT employees. McKenna says the $4.3 million increase would help to address some of the issues of low morale within the department, as well as combat a growing issue they are having in retaining employees, as they are leaving MoDOT for better-paying jobs with county and city municipalities in the same line of work.

McKenna says the proposed funds for that appropriation would not come from the general revenue, but from the state road funds. The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission essentially has the authority to decide how the road funds are spent.

While the difference between the governor’s recommendations and MoDOT’s budget differ by more than $26 million, the House Budget Committee already sees opportunities to make cuts in order to balance the budget, possibly starting with the differences in the two proposed budgets.

And after two days of budget presentations, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick continues to make it clear that unlimited funds in the budget will not be allowed if he has a say in the matter.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, questions a witness on a budget request. (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, questions a witness on a budget request. (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m not feeling very flexible about this ‘E’ thing,” Fitzpatrick said. “But I am willing to work with the departments in making sure that we preserve the commissions’ authorities and other areas of the constitution where there’s a requirement for some authority to exist.

“Absent the estimate on these appropriations, I’m quite concerned about the notion that the elimination of appropriation authority that exists for the commission in the state constitution is being jeopardized here,” McKenna said.

“Every other department in the state government is able to figure out how to do it without any E’s,” Fitzpatrick said. “I know that you’re a smart guy, Director, and you guys have the ability to know if you’re going to run short on appropriation authority. I don’t take the commission’s authority lightly, it’s not an affront to them, but I think we can arrive at a number, just like every other department, that will give you guys the ability to do what the Commission wants to do and thinks is appropriate, and still give us the ability to fix the amount and the purpose.”

Lawmakers say that the removal of those unlimited items would allow for more transparency, as well as reflect a more accurate budget. But Breaker argued that it’s difficult to know and anticipate some of the costs. The House committee members responded, saying that a supplemental budget would be able to address those potential issues.

“In the situation where we currently have an ‘E’, if we need to spend it, we call the Office of Administration and say these are the things we need to spend the money on, increase the appropriation,” Roberta Breaker, chief financial at MoDOT, said. “This is what it’s about: it’s about delivering services to the taxpayers as opposed to saying to a contractor or a local public agency ‘I’m sorry my appropriation ran out, and I can’t pay you.’ Lack of E’s encourage state agencies to pump up the size of the appropriations to be safe, as opposed to getting as close as we can and missing.”

“The idea that MoDOT should be treated differently and held to a different level of expectation and accountability from any other department is not one that I’m going to get on board with,” Fitzpatrick responded. “There’s nothing you’re going to say that is going to change my mind about this.”