JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Chamber of Commerce is hosting the Missouri Conference on Transportation Thursday at the Capitol Plaza.
The conference was opened with speeches from Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission Chairman Stephen Miller and Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna, who spoke on the problems and solutions facing transportation infrastructure.
“Ordinarily, we spend a lot of time talking about the need, but not often about the solution,” Miller said. “We’re competing with our surrounding states, who are spending more per mile than we are.”
Missouri invests approximately $17,000 per mile, while Kansas invests $70,000 per mile.
MoDOT is tasked with maintaining over 34,000 miles of road – the seventh largest infrastructure system of any state nationwide.
“What do we do about our interstates? I-70 is our only interstate,” Miller said, explaining that a rebuild is direly needed. “We do not have a plan for how we are going to rebuild I-70.”
Miller said the state needs to focus on preservation, maintenance, and improvement of highways and roads. The rebuilding of I-70 would cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, depending on capacity growth.
“We have to draw from a variety of different sources,” said Miller, explaining that different funding sources come from different needs. Miller listed pros and cons of cost sharing, P3 (public private partnership), and the gas tax as ways to fund the department.
Missouri’s cost sharing program was suspended in January 2014, but Miller said implementing it again would require enhancements to respond to local need. Cost sharing would require local governments to match state funds for local improvements, but does little for major highways. “There are ways to make local match more compatible.”
Miller showed a map of the 641 critical bridges in Missouri – a red dot for each of the bridges in critical condition.
“It looks the state has measles, in fact, it does,” Miller said.
Miller said the commission and department will be working with the legislature to explore options.
“We will have a vigorous debate in the General Assembly,” Miller said of the different options. “…We are going to cheer on the General Assembly to bring us as many funding options as possible. These are not either/or options – do I pick cost share or gas tax? We need all of them. We need to pick the right solution for what we need.”
Director McKenna spoke next. He has been in office for 2 months now.
“It is really astonishing to see that level of commitment,” McKenna said. “There are real problems that need to be addressed.”
McKenna said the reason transportation is at the forefront of discussion is safety.
“We need to make travel around our state safer,” McKenna said. “In the past year, we have seen an uptick in lost souls on our road. Eight hundred fifty souls were lost on our roads in 2015. The one thing you need to look at when you see trends going in the wrong direction is how we fix that.”
McKenna agreed with Miller that legislative action would be necessary, particularly for the safety of Missouri travelers. Despite having the seventh largest infrastructure system, Missouri is ranked 47th in revenue spent per mile.
“We are surrounded by states with higher rates of investment,” McKenna said. “They are turning their concern into action, they are raining their gas tax.”
“The lack of regional investment will have a lasting effect on our economy,” McKenna said. “This benefits our neighbors and ourselves. We have such an advantage geographically – location, rail, rivers – we have to take advantage of those and we have to keep pace with our neighbors.”
It was not all gloom and doom from the department, who shared that MoDOT is taking steps, including a bolder five-year direction, use to debt to advance projects, and the use of federal stimulus money.
“Let’s go get them,” Miller wrapped the question and answer session of the both of the officials.
Afterwards, Speaker of the House Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and Pro Tem Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, spoke briefly and also answered audience questions. House leadership is currently considering cost sharing as a possible funding source.
“We have got to let the economy operate,” said Richardson. “We need to make the most of what we have. I don’t think it will be a simple solution to solve this problem.”
The two received many questions, one of which was regarding the unpopularity of the gas tax among voters.
“Ultimately, we are elected by our constituents,” said Hoskins. “We have to listen.”
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.