By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Economic development was the biggest overall theme Thursday evening when business leaders, public officials and residents gathered to share their thoughts on Missouri's transportation needs during a listening session.
About 30 participants met at Hannibal-LaGrange University for the session and talked about upgrades on existing highways, safety and maintaining the state's transportation system. Missouri Department of Transportation facilitators who are conducting listening sessions around the state said Hannibal's participants obviously see transportation as an engine that powers the economy.
"That kind of set our group apart. They talked a lot about economic development," said Marisa Brown Ellison, customer relations manager for MoDOT's Northeast District.
Several speakers also told MoDOT how important it is to build the U.S. 61 bypass that will carry through-traffic and heavy trucks around Hannibal.
"Truck traffic has picked up to the point that it's pretty congested down here," said Tom Boland, a Hannibal businessman and former chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.
Dick Rupp, a member of the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee, added that the U.S. 61 bypass around would attract development once it is built.
Others pointed out other priorities, such as construction of a new Mississippi River bridge at Louisiana, Mo., as well as an upgraded U.S. 54 to and from the bridge.
Paula Gough, MoDOT's district engineer in Northeast Missouri, was just as interested in hearing about the broader themes of transportation.
"Transportation is very personal," Gough said as the two-hour listening session began. "You know what we need, and we need to listen to you."
Participants at the event sat at tables with facilitators and brainstormed about general priorities, as well as individual projects.
"Safety always needs to be a top consideration any time we're talking about transportation," Rupp said.
Others talked about the need to integrate river, rail and airport transportation, as well as roads and bridges.
Gough and other MoDOT officials were at a similar session Wednesday night in Kirksville, where they heard about needed upgrades to the U.S. 63 corridor from Kirksville north into Iowa. But Gough said participants also talked about bike and pedestrian trails and transit system, such as the OATS public bus system.
During her introduction at the Hannibal session, Gough gave a hint as to the size of the task for MoDOT. Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the nation, with 33,000 miles of pavement, and the sixth-largest number of bridges. The state's 4,800 miles of railroad tracks handle the fourth-largest tonnage in the nation, and Missouri h as 125 public airports.
Yet MoDOT has downsized from 10 district offices to seven while eliminating 1,200 jobs, and selling land and equipment. Those cuts were approved as the agency's annual funding fell to $700 million a year, down from $1.2 billion only a few years ago.
"Our funding is not keeping up," Gough said.
Missouri lawmakers are considering whether to send a 1-cent sales tax measure to voters in November 2014. The tax would raise an estimated $8 billion over 10 years before it would sunset. Ten percent of the money would go to local governments, and about $1 billion would finance an expansion of Interstate 70. Other funds would be available for regional projects that MoDOT would determine before a referendum were held.