Tri-State Transportation successes slowed by tight funding

Posted: Nov. 7, 2013 7:56 pm Updated: Nov. 21, 2013 8:15 pm

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

MACOMB, Ill. -- Tri-State Development Summit officials can point to decades of transportation successes in the 35 counties working together in Western Illinois, Northeast Missouri and Southeast Iowa.

The Summit Transportation Task Force that met at Macomb City Hall on Thursday also has seen its share of challenges.

Pat Poepping, a member of the Summit steering committee, said tight funding is the recurring theme in all three states this year.

"Funding is the big issue. The departments of transportation do a good job with what they've got, but there's only so much they can do when funds are short," Poepping said.

Macomb had a ready example of both success and challenge along its northwestern side. The Macomb bypass has progressed very quickly in recent months as a contractor prepares the way for Illinois 336 to bypass the city streets. That is a big success.

"That's the last, missing piece of the Chicago-Kansas City Expressway," said Thomas A. Oakley of the Transportation Task Force.

The bypass also represents a challenge.

Illinois lacks the funds to pave all four lanes of the bypass in the near term. For that reason, regional leaders are trying to secure $32.5 million that's needed to accelerate the paving of two lanes -- with the understanding that the other two lanes will be completed later.

Yvonne Knapp of the Highway 34 Coalition told about construction progress along more than five miles of four-lane highway near Biggsville and West Central High School. She said more than 19 miles of paving work still has not been funded.

Dan Wiedemeier, a former Iowa Transportation Commission member, said the section of U.S. 34 between Gulfport and Monmouth will complete the final four-way link between Des Moines, Iowa, and Peoria. By extension, it also is the final link for four-lane highways that connect coast-to-coast.

Just as the Summit counties focus on regionalism and joint successes, the Task Force members were thinking about highway systems, rather than point-to-point roads.

The Avenue of the Saints stretches about 536 miles from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn. One of the priorities for the Summit in Northeast Missouri is construction of the Hannibal Expressway that will take through-traffic around Hannibal. The new route would help truckers and other drivers avoid seven stop lights, lower speed limits and would shave several miles of travel.

Harriet Beard of the Highway 63 Transportation Corp. said the U.S. 63 bypass has helped reduce truck traffic and through-traffic in Kirksville. She said local voters approved a sales tax in 2000 to upgrade U.S. 63 from Macon to Kirksville, knowing that not one mile of that highway was within city limits. Eventually, that tax was extended to help pay for a two-lane bypass that will be upgraded when funds are available.

There are no good prospects for better transportation funds from the federal or state governments.

Wiedemeier said Iowa officials have set a goal of adding $232 million to annual transportation budgets, but they have met opposition to higher taxes.

The Missouri General Assembly's effort to put a sales tax issue on the November 2014 ballot was blocked when a state senator launched a filibuster at the end of the spring legislative session.

Illinois lawmakers have been dealing with a fiscal crisis and have shown little interest in boosting transportation budgets. A capital program may be considered if pension reform is completed.

Members of Congress also have been reluctant to add to shrinking transportation budgets.

Tom Carper, a member of the Amtrak Board of Directors and former Macomb mayor, said passenger rail service is increasingly popular with riders.

"Our ridership has been up in 10 of the last 11 years," Carper said.

Ticket receipts are up, but capital funding has been tight; Amtrak has been repairing old equipment whenever possible to avoid new purchases.

Charles Bell of the Great River Economic Development Foundationn said the Mid-America Port Authority has been seeking the funds to build a port south of Quincy. The site would be protected by a 500-year levee and would handle intermodal shipping containers. It has not won funding in five rounds of federal grants.

"We're looking at some alternative funding and are seeking private partners," Bell said.

GREDF President Marcel Wagner Jr. said Archer Daniels Midland also is finding lots of businesses interested in its inland port system in Decatur. The railroad-based operation handles intermodal containers and can speed international shipping by days or weeks.

Oakley said all the modes of transportation dovetail together to boost economic development.