I stand here today to praise MoDOT. These are words you do not often hear in Missouri, where attitudes toward our state department of transportation usually align closely with one’s attitude toward the Kansas Jayhawks or Chicago Cubs. The rural areas of our great state have been angry at MoDOT for years, ever since the broken promises of rural road improvements after the tax increases of the early 1990s. Anger toward MoDOT is a more recent development in the Saint Louis area, at least at its present high intensity. Perhaps this is because familiarity breeds contempt, and the people in Saint Louis are becoming very familiar with MoDOT.
All metropolitan areas have road construction to deal with, but MoDOT has been particularly active around Saint Louis recently. As the major I-64 renovations begin, MoDOT remains in heated discussions over a new Mississippi River bridge, and is conducting other major projects throughout our area. In recent years, road construction is to Saint Louisans what the small rain cloud was to unlucky cartoon characters of years past. It follows us everywhere we go, and will continue to go until at least 2010.
But I am not praising MoDOT because they are crushing lots of rocks or laying miles of new pavement. I am doing so because Missouri finally has a transportation agency that is trying to be innovative and creative in how it addresses the state’s significant transportation needs and goals. I was recently able to attend the Partnerships for Transportation conference in Kansas City. It was exciting to hear how MoDOT is giving consideration to modern funding methods, such as public-private partnerships, to fund its projects. PPPs are not an all-encompassing solution. To paraphrase a MoDOT official, they are a tool to solve a part of Missouri’s transportation problem.
MoDOT’s new usage of the “design-build” project model, including on its I-64 work, is further improving efficiency and saving taxpayers money. They have also been receptive to ideas such as truck-only lanes, as part of the much-needed improvements to our major cross-state highways. While every project is different, and in many cases the traditional financing and construction models will still best serve Missourians, the strong consideration given to new outlooks is exciting.
One of the leaders of the MoDOT bashing effort in Saint Louis has been Bill McClellan, the outstanding Post-Dispatch columnist. McClellan regularly points out, correctly in most regards, that we don’t have much of a traffic problem in Saint Louis. He wonders why we are spending $535 million to close down I-64 for a project we don’t need — and, no doubt, many Saint Louisans would agree with his assertions. The flaw in his argument is that MoDOT has never said that “The New I-64” project is primarily about reducing congestion. The project is about repairing old bridges, improving (or creating) the connection between I-170 and I-64, redoing entrance and exit ramps that are dangerously tight, and adding capacity in some places. Doing all of these things at once will save years of construction time and millions of dollars, even if that will be hard for people to appreciate during the inevitable, serious traffic delays. While the $535 million price tag is enormous, the resulting improvements to the transportation system in Saint Louis will make the project worth the money and effort.
MoDOT deserves even greater flexibility to build and maintain the roads we all use. Amending the state constitution to allow state highway toll roads and high-occupancy vehicle lanes would give MoDOT the ability to implement far-sighted, long-term improvements. Greater partnership by MoDOT with private entities to build and maintain our roads, including the consideration of private toll roads, should be encouraged by legislators and taxpayers. If Missouri is going to meet the transportation demands of the future for our residents and businesses, all options need to be available to MoDOT and local highway departments. This is why I stand in praise of the current version of MoDOT. It is a far cry from the 1990s agency that raised taxes to build roads that never got built. Missourians should support innovative thinking in transportation, even as hardships undoubtedly occur during major construction. I particularly hope Mr. McClellan would support these changes to MoDOT. After all, he’s a Cubs fan.
David Stokes is a policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute.