Our Opinion: MoDOT decelerates in effort to ramp up funding

State transportation officials again are eliminating new projects and suspending construction programs in an effort to leverage more funding.

In connection with an annual transportation conference, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) on Thursday issued a news release that began: “Uncertainty about future federal funding, declining fuel tax proceeds and increasing costs of doing business have spurred the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission (MHTC) to stop adding new projects to its five-year construction budget and to suspend its popular Cost-Share Program.”

If this agency hand-wringing sounds familiar, your memory is sharp.

More than a decade ago, we published an opinion in this forum titled, “MoDOT in a snit.”

On Sept. 22, 2002, we wrote: “Since the resounding failure of a proposed transportation tax hike on the August (2002) ballot, the transportation department’s well-oiled public relations machine has been churning out press releases not only about what the agency plans to do, but about what it no longer intends to do. … Last week, MoDOT trumped the disturbing U.S. 50 announcement with news that it would cancel or delay more than 300 long-range road projects because of a lack of money.”

On Thursday, MoDOT officials cited a range of reasons for abandoning new projects and suspending existing ones. Those reasons include: decreased fuel tax revenues, increased costs of materials and employee benefits, inflation and the “looming insolvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.”

Joe Carmichael, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, said the announcement was made now “because this is the time of year when MoDOT and its local planning partners begin to prioritize future projects in order to add an additional year to the five-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.”

MoDOT Director Dave Nichols outlined agency cutbacks and emphasized improvements during the past decade, then added: “But without a solution, we can’t do any more going forward.”

An obvious solution is more revenue.

And, like 2002, MoDOT metaphorically is throwing up its hands after a failed tax effort. Last year, an attempt to place a 1-cent sales tax on the statewide ballot died on the final day of the session. Lawmakers this year are being asked to revive that effort to finance transportation.

Transportation officials will defend their action as realistic, not fatalistic or antagonistic. But by severing the cost-share program with county and city governments, they spread dissatisfaction — and, hopefully, support for a tax proposal — among all users.

Every component of government could do more with more revenue and resources. We understand the motivation; we just don’t like the strategy.

Dwelling on the negative and emphasizing what you can’t or won’t do will not win public sympathy or support.

In the 2002 editorial, we concluded: “The bottom line is that Missourians expect MoDOT officials to stop whining and do their jobs.”

That timeless observation continues to apply.

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