Last week, workers put the finishing touches on the new concrete sidewalks that run along U.S. Highway 61 (East Jackson Blvd.) from Old Cape Road to Jackson High School.
All summer, traffic has been reduced to one lane on the side of the highway where work was done.
The old asphalt sidewalk was removed and fresh concrete was poured. The finished product certainly looks nice, but was there anything wrong with the old sidewalks? Was it worth the money to update these little-used sidewalks, when there are so many roads and bridges that need repairing? What was MoDOT thinking?
These are questions that are frequently asked of Mark Shelton, a MoDOT engineer for Southeast Missouri.
He told The Cash-Book Journal that federal highway funds often come with strings attached. Funds used to improve these sidewalks had to be spent on sidewalks; they could not be used on roadways or bridges.
Federal law regulates sidewalks; new ones must meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They must have a proper degree of incline where the sidewalks are cut for driveways and roads (the old sidewalks were too steep) and they must be level from curb side to back side (the old ones were not consistent). If MoDOT did not spend this money to upgrade Jackson’s sidewalks, the money would have been taken away from MoDOT and given to some other state to improve sidewalks there.
Shelton’s explanation came following a presentation by Patrick McKenna, director of MoDOT, to the Southeast Missouri Pachyderm Club Aug. 16 at Dexter Bar-B-Que in Cape Girardeau.
McKenna said MoDOT gives Missourians “the ability to move freely but there is a shared cost.”
MoDOT received almost $2.5 billion in funds last year; $911 million came from the federal government; the largest portion ($1,539,000) came from gas tax and motor vehicle license fees; and a small portion ($18 million) came from Missouri general revenue funds.
With those funds, the state manages 34,000 miles of state highways and 10,000 bridges. Although there are 132,000 miles of roadways in the state, about 95 percent of the total miles traveled are on state roads, McKenna said.
“We maintain roadways that counties do in other states,” McKenna said. That’s because a decision was made back in the 1950s and ’60s to “get Missouri out of the mud.” To do that, citizens agreed to increase fuel tax by 50 percent. “Fifty percent at that time was one penny,” McKenna said.
The biggest expenditure last year ($1,434,000) went for state roads and bridges. Another $408 million went to cities and counties; $280 million went to debt payment; $250 million went to other state agencies such as the Department of Revenue and the Highway Patrol; and $96 million went to multimodal transportation.
Rural people think Mo-DOT spends too much in the big cities, and city folk think too much is spent on rural roads. “There is an equitable distribution of dissatisfaction,” McKenna said.
Missouri has the seventh largest state highway system, but it is only 47th in the nation in funds received. “That is a challenge,” McKenna said. “It is a challenge that has been met well.”
One way the challenge has been met is by keeping administrative costs low. “We’re pretty skimpy administratively,” McKenna said. “We’re second in the nation with lowest administrative costs.”
Many highway projects receive federal funding. The state pays 20 percent of the cost, and federal dollars pay 80 percent. Overall, for every dollar sent to Washington, Missouri gets back $1.20. “We have really good representation in the U.S. Congress,” McKenna said.
Unfortunately, a lot of that federal money “comes with strings attached. Sometimes it comes with a whole ball of yarn,” he said.
At the end of the year, some states can’t use up their allotment of federal funds, so Missouri applies for those unused funds. Last year Missouri applied for $72 million and received it all.
Because transportation costs are hidden (gas tax, sales tax on new cars, etc.), no one knows how much they spend on transportation every year. McKenna said the average Missouri driver pays about $30 a month. McKenna said he pays twelve times that for his family cell phone plan.
Currently, Missouri has about 2,000 bridges in need of repair. That doesn’t mean they are unsafe. “If it becomes unsafe, we close it, no questions asked,” McKenna said. Another 1,300 bridges are weight restricted. That costs the public money as people with heavy loads must detour around them. About 800 are in poor condition with structural defects. There are 300-500 that are in need of repair. McKenna said the state tries to hold it to that number. MoDOT tries to get the most use out of a bridge that it possibly can, so there will never be zero defective bridges.
One way to increase funds for road and bridge repair is to raise the state gas tax from its current 17¢ per gallon. The gas tax has not been raised since 1996. Another way is to raise license fees. That has not happened since the 1960s in some cases.
Meanwhile, MoDOT keeps maintaining our roads with its shoestring budget. “Our job is to do the best with what we have,” McKenna said.