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Fewer people are driving on Missouri roads amid stay-at-home orders, and the state is already cutting back planned construction projects as it expects its primary source of road funding to take a major hit.
More people are staying home and driving less, with the Missouri Department of Transportation reporting highway traffic is down about 35 percent from February.
The average price of gasoline in Missouri is down more than $1 a gallon compared to last April and almost 75 cents since late February, according to GasBuddy.
MoDOT hasn't seen the effect on gas tax revenue yet, but it's planning for a significant decline in what amounts to almost half of all state funds the department receives. User fees, including the gas tax and license and registration fees, account for almost 99 percent of MoDOT's state funds.
"We're taking a measured approach to what we're putting out on the street because we know there's an issue," MoDOT Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger said. "We don't know how big the issue is, we don't know how long it's going to last, but what we do know is traffic volumes around the state are down 35 percent, so we can do the math and say that's going to have an impact."
So far, the department has pushed back bidding on five projects that were expected to cost more than $8 million in state funds and almost $45 million overall. One project the department planned to bid out this month was delayed in each of Kansas City and St. Louis, two in the Springfield area, and one covering five cities in southeast Missouri:
Pavement repair on various interstates in the Kansas City area — $1 million estimated total cost, including $100,000 in state funds, according to the transportation improvement plan.
Pavement resurfacing, new signals and pedestrian upgrades on 3.6 miles of Missouri 180 from Interstate 170 to St. Louis city limits — $17.3 million total, $3 million state.
Pavement resurfacing on U.S. 60 from east of Glenstone Avenue to Highland Springs Boulevard, east of Springfield — $758,000 total, $134,000 state.
Adding lanes to the James River Freeway, improving ramps from National Avenue to Missouri 65, and reconfiguring the interchange at Business Loop 65 in Springfield — $23.7 million total, $4.4 million state.
Pedestrian upgrades for ADA transition in various locations in Bertrand, East Prairie, Charleston, Dexter and Malden — $1.9 million total, $389,000 state.
MoDOT prioritized projects that are important for safety, including bridge repairs and repaving, to choose which projects to push out. It's not clear when they'll be bid out, and that will depend on how much money is available. It could be a few months or a year, Hassinger said.
The 16 projects still being bid out this month would be scheduled for construction late this year and early next year. Two are in Central Missouri: fiberoptic cable connections in several places in Columbia and replacing the deck on the Route EE bridge over Prairie Creek in Howard County, just west of the Boone County line. No projects in Central Missouri were delayed for letting this month.
While the department will see a drop in funding, Hassinger said, projects that have already been bid out shouldn't cost the state more than expected. The state's costs are set in the contracts, and contractors take on the risk that materials and equipment could cost more than they projected in their bids. So far, contractors haven't reported major issues with costs, he said.
Contracts do have contingencies for "unforeseen events," including epidemics, that let the department extend the timeline for a project to be completed but doesn't change how much the contractor is paid overall, Hassinger said.
For example, for some construction projects, workers might need protective equipment like masks that are hard to come by as they're being bought for front-line medical workers who need them to limit the spread of COVID-19 as they treat patients.
"That would be an example of a doorway where, you need to work safe, so we'll consider extending time to make sure you can get the right stuff on your job," Hassinger said. "Nobody's asked for that yet, but that's an example."
In the department's regular calls with contractors, none have said they have big issues with people not being able to come to work or with supply chain disruptions.
"I'm not going to say it's not a concern. People are concerned, just like everybody in the whole population is concerned," he said. "We're just, I think, lucky to have a job that's essential because of the need to move goods and services, but also, that lends itself to being done in a socially distant way so we're not putting others at risk."
Spring weather means more road work will start in the coming weeks. Last week, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said lower traffic has meant some projects can be done faster. Larger projects in areas like St. Louis and Kansas City will be most affected, but Hassinger said he doesn't think projects will be done in half the time just because there's less traffic.
Crews working on highways in heavily populated areas have been able to work during the day instead of at night. Hassinger said there has been a lot of interest in moving night work to the day, and major projects probably won't impact commuters as much since there are fewer at the moment.