Missouri Diary, part 1: After Memorial Day, the intensity of the road trip accelerated to NASCAR-like conditions, even as Mrs. Martin continued to mosey along at about 60 mph on the highway. After our tour of the St. Louis arch park project (story to come soon), we hustled to Kansas City for two jam-packed non-stop days, from dawn to dusk, with not even an evening’s respite to sample any of the barbecue my friends earnestly kept recommending.
Day 1 was all about Missouri DOT and roads and bridges. Greg Horn, a MoDOT district engineer with a long and illustrious career notched on his belt, rode with us from St. Louis part of the way to Kansas City, including on a stretch of I-70 that is marked as the first to be constructed as part of the Interstate system.
Horn told us that he has never been so concerned about the funding situation for the state’s transportation. A recent ballot initiative to raise the gas tax by 6 cents for transportation failed. If the state can’t come up with its share to the federal match by 2018, he says, “we can’t maintain our system. “
People don’t want to raise the gas tax, but on the other hand, a survey of the state returned 12,000 comments equaling a $90-billion wish list for transportation needs, says Horn. Citizens said they wanted the roads to be maintained and safe; transportation-oriented economic development; and alternatives to driving, e.g., transit and bike paths.
Yet MoDOT is looking at maybe $13 billion in funding over the next 20 years. “We can’t even maintain the highways we have,” he says.
Stephen Miller, Chair of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, squeezed in a lunch with us to talk further about the state’s funding crisis. He noted that the failed tax initiative, called Amendment 7, would have merely kept the crucial corridor of I-70 maintained — not expanded or improved.
Both Miller and Horn noted that big companies have specifically said they would settle in and create jobs if only that corridor could be improved. Each year Missouri’s I-70 corridor carries more than 31.5 million tons of freight with a value in excess of $59 billion.
The economic opportunities extend beyond roads to freight rail, ports and the potential to improve river flow for increased barge traffic, Miller notes. Missouri, and particularly St. Louis, sits in the heartland of the nation. It could be the heart of intermodal trade and economics—but the funding to unclog and widen its arteries is simply not there.
Brian Kidwell, MoDOT assistant director engineer, notes that recently the agency had to close its eighth bridge abruptly due to structural concerns. The bridge had carried 22,000 daily vehicles. Moreover, the state’s budget for bridge maintenance has shrunk from $1.2 billion to $86 million. The construction budget will shrink from $700 million this year to $325 million next year. “We are trying to band-aid our infrastructure, and it’s just going to get worse,” he says.