MISSOURI'S top lawmakers were saying all the right things last week about how they want to address the state's transportation funding crisis.
It took years to raise awareness about this problem. Now it is time to take action. The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri's Transportation Needs helped set the stage with Tuesday's release of a report calling on the state to spend $600 million to $1 billion more each year to improve roads and bridges, aiports, mass transit and other forms of transportation.
The panel made those findings after hearing from more than 800 people around the state last year in visits to seven cities, including a well-attended session in Hannibal. The committee, empaneled by former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, has condensed the many requests for transportation projects and better funding into a report that defines the state's transportation needs.
The Missouri Department of Transportation's annual budget has shrunk to less than $700 million, down from an average of $1.2 billion per year from 2006 to 2011. The funding loss has forced MoDOT to focus on maintenance of the 32,000 miles of highway in the state. In addition, MoDOT has cut 1,200 jobs, closed three district offices and continues to sell property and equipment in order to save an estimated $512 million over five years and direct the savings to highway and bridge projects.
In short, MoDOT has done all it can do to manage a disastrous shortfall in funding. Those heroic efforts will not shift enough dollars to keep up with the state's transportation needs.
MoDOT's efforts were not lost on Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, who said Wednesday that "it's time to develop a long-term, comprehensive plan that provides for Missouri¹s transportation needs and enlist the public's support for a new transportation funding package."
The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee laid out several options that would move the needle. Retired state Sen. Bill McKenna, a co-chairman of the panel, said suggestions made at the listening posts included higher fuel taxes, higher sales taxes and toll roads. All were mentioned in the report, without selecting a particular plan.
"We wanted to lay everything out and let the Legislature decide," McKenna said during a press conference. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, received the committee report. His own favored option is to cut state entitlement programs and shift the money to transportation and education.
Whatever options lawmakers choose, they must find ways to do more than maintain transportation infrastructure.
The Tri-State Development Summit, which encompasses 13 counties in Northeast Missouri, 14 counties in West-Central Illinois and eight counties in Southeast Iowa, has identified key highway priorities in Northeast Missouri as part of a comprehensive four-lane transportation blueprint for the three-state region.
One of the top priorities is the relocation of U.S. 61 at Hannibal to enhance the economic development potential of the 526-mile Avenue of the Saints from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn.
In all sections outside of Hannibal, the Avenue is a four-lane divided highway. But in Hannibal it becomes an undivided, congested, multi-lane city street that carries heavy truck traffic past schools and retail areas and creates major bottlenecks at seven stoplights -- the only stoplights on the entire corridor. The relocation also will provide a shorter connection between U.S. 61 north and south of Hannibal, shaving 3.5 miles off of the seven miles that traffic now follows looping through the city.
There is widespread agreement on the need for the relocation, but no funds are available for the project.
The relocation and other Summit priorities for Missouri are among a long list of projects that must move forward if Missouri is to prosper.
Infrastructure investments create jobs now and provide the essential framework for long-term economic growth.
The Chicago-Kansas City Expressway, finally complete across Northern Missouri, is a prime example of what can be accomplished when a commitment is made to fund transportation at the level needed to meet the needs of residents and industry and promote economic growth.
The C-KC success also demonstrates the value of partnerships. Residents in four Missouri counties agreed in 2005 to impose a local sales tax to help fund the project, MoDOT kept its pledge to complete the work on a tight timeline, and the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission approved a proposal to spend $456,000 to install 2,460 signs marking the route -- a vital element in being able to market and promote use of the new corridor.
The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee report underscores yet again the critical need to resolve the transportation crisis so that vital projects can continue to move forward and -- more than that -- points to several revenue options that offer solutions.
Missourians have spoken out loud and clear.
Senate President Dempsey has, with great clarity, defined what must be achieved: a long-term comprehensive plan, supported by the public, that meets critical transportation needs.
The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee has shown ways in which that can be accomplished.
Now, members of the General Assembly and the governor must do their part: It is time to act.