April 28, 2005

MoDOT Director Addresses Area Leaders in Memphis

Thanks, but what have you done for me lately. That was the message Pete Rahn, the new director of the Missouri Department of Transportation received at a luncheon held at the Scotland County Rec-Plex in Memphis on April 22.

A number of local officials from across northeast Missouri met with Rahn and praised MoDOT for the recent highway improvements across the region. However the commendations quickly turned to requests for further upgrades and more funding for projects of need in the area.

H. Middleton discussed MoDOT funding that has been made available for the Briggs-Smith Memorial Airport in Memphis. The airport board chairman told Rahn about current projects at the airfield and thanked the director for state and federal funding that is helping make needed repairs to the runway as well as mandated upgrades to the taxiway.

Pepsi-Cola Memphis Bottling Co. CEO Mike Johnson addressed the need for shoulders on Highways 136 and 15 as well as further replacement of narrow bridges, particularly on Highway 15.

Johnson told Rahn that his company has as many as 35 vehicles on the roads daily and stressed that the upgrades were needed for the safety of all motorists.

Dave Shoush, director of the Northeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission also pointed at the area’s bridges as the largest area of concern. He noted that four-lane projects on 61 and 63 were underway, meaning the focus should be turned to replacing the high number of bridges in northeast Missouri that are rated in condition 3, meaning they need to be replaced.

State Representative Brian Munzlinger pointed out that many of the bridges in question, in Scotland County, had been built in the 1930’s and were not constructed for heavy loads and obviously not of adequate width.

Highway 136 Corridor director Cathy Middleton pointed out that MoDOT has completed several important bridge projects on 136, and stressed the importance of the highway as an east and west connection between 1-27, Highway 63 and Highway 61. She noted that road isn’t just a Missouri route, as Highway 136 goes halfway across Illinois in the east and two-thirds of the distance across Nebraska in the west.

Former state representative Judge Karl DeMarce stated that northeast Missouri too often is seen in Jefferson City as “the backwaters” of the state and was not fairly depicted because of lower population numbers. DeMarce stated that as Highways 61 and 63 are completed to four lanes that the region is poised for a boom with the continued support of MoDOT in making the needed transportation improvements.

“All these small improvements discussed today will go a long way to help,” DeMarce told Rahn. “If MoDOT fails to meet these needs, then we will be left further behind. These suggestions are not only for the safety of the people but also for the progress of the region.”

Clark County Economic Development Director Steve Murphy continued the thought process, highlighting the statement that improved infrastructure is the first step to growing population bases in northeast Missouri, which ultimately leads to increased tax bases to fund future improvements.

“I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe this region can gain some 2,000 jobs due to the completion of the Avenue of the Saints,” Murphy stated. “Add to that the fact that we have one of the best ports on the Mississippi River at Alexandria, and this region has a lot of opportunities to capitalize on our transportation systems.”

Rahn thanked speakers for their input and indicated his agreement with the suggestions.

“I haven’t heard anything mentioned her today that I disagree with,” Rahn stated.

He told the gathering that MoDOT is undergoing several changes that he hopes will make some of these projects possible in the near future.

Rahn highlighted the recent passage of Amendment 3, which has generated needed revenue through bond sales. This new funding is making it possible for MoDOT to do a number of projects in the region as well as across the state.

Another change has been the department’s transition to a philosophy of “practical design”. Rahn explained the new mindset as simply meeting the transportation needs at an acceptable level instead of designing projects to meet the perfect ideal.

“Our state engineer Kevin Keith has a good explanation, he says we need to build Chevys instead of Cadillacs’” Rahn said.

The director indicated the new philosophy will allow MoDOT to meet the needs of each project but still do more with the money available, basically stretching each dollar further.

He stated that the area’s small bridges are an example of this new mindset. MoDOT is working with the University of Missouri – Rolla engineering department to design better ways to replace the more than 2,900 of the state’s 10,000 bridges that are rated as deficient. Rahn stated that if MoDOT can find alternative methods to replace these structures, with box culverts and other plans, the state can cut the costs and instead of building a $1 million bridge, it can build three or four new crossings for the same cost.

Ultimately Rahn gave the meeting the same message it has been receiving for years, that ultimately MoDOT is going to have to have more money to fix all the problems.

“A lack of resources can’t be an excuse for a lack of progress,” Rahn said. “We will constantly strive for more efficient ways to resolve our problems but eventually we are going to have to come back and ask for more money.”

The director pointed out that while are dependence on our transportation has grown over the years, funding for it has not increased on a similar level. He noted that in 1924 the state passed a two-cent gas tax. Just allowing for inflationary growth would mean the tax would be at 21 cents today, instead of the 17 cent current level. Rahn pointed out the same trend at the federal level, where inflation figures would show the fuel tax growing from five cents to 33 cents today, instead of its current level of 18 cents.

“Today we are more and more dependent on our transportation system, yet we are not investing at the same levels we used to, even though our roads are more important today than they have ever been,” Rahn said.

Rahn also addressed the rural versus urban concerns highlighting some incredible statistics. The MoDOT director stated that a recent study revealed that 20 percent of the state’s traffic flows across just 242 miles of highway. The state has more than 32,000 miles of roads. Rahn revealed that 1/5 of all vehicle traffic occurs on just 0.075 of 1 percent of the states roads. If that’s not congested enough, the next 20 percent of the state’s traffic is confined to just an additional 685 miles. A total of 40 percent of Missouri’s cars, vans, and trucks drive on less than 1,000 of the 32,000 miles of state roads. A total of 80 percent of the state’s traffic flows on just 5,500 total miles of roadway, leaving roughly 27,000 miles of roads for the last 20 percent of traffic.

If the traffic numbers don’t convince rural taxpayers that urban areas need the transportation dollars, Rahn also reported that of the 5,500 most traveled miles in the state, that 60 percent are rated fair to poor.

“That’s why we are taking $400 million from Amendment 3 and targeting these high-traffic areas,” Rahn stated.

The statistics reveal that the 27,000 miles of mostly rural roads that handle the final 20 percent of traffic are in fairly good shape. Roughly 70 percent of these systems are rated good to very good.

Rahn went on to explain that fixing the high-traffic areas right, would ultimately help urban areas. Currently these systems are requiring constant maintenance, eating up valuable resources. The director stated that when these problems are corrected more permanently, it will ultimately free up more money for the next tier of projects.

But the biggest obstacle the state is facing is Interstate 70. Rahn said the state’s main highway is in dire need of a complete upgrade. However a $3 billion price tag may ultimately prevent that. Rahn told the meeting that I-70 is a big challenge. The road was built 49 years ago, and was designed for a 20-year life span with 10-percent heavy commercial traffic. Now nearly 50 years later, I-70 is still in use and receives 54-percent of its travel by heavy trucks and commercial transports.

Rahn closed the meeting stating that ultimately MoDOT is going to need additional funding. He stressed however his first challenge will be regaining the trust and support of the taxpayers.

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