By Leah Thorsen
For more than two decades, the Missouri Department of Transportation has divvied up millions of federal dollars each year to cities and urban areas, even though it was under no obligation to do so.
Now, the board that oversees MoDOT is considering a proposal to keep $10.3 million that supported two programs: a small urban surface transportation program for Missouri's smaller cities, and a bridge replacement and improvement program aimed at larger urban areas.
At a meeting in Columbia this month of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, commissioners held off on voting on whether such a change will happen, saying they wanted to get feedback before making a final decision.
But they directed MoDOT staff to make financial plans for the coming years assuming the $10.3 million of federal money will be kept, rather than shared with local governments.
"We've been asked to tighten our belt in every way possible," said Kenny Voss, MoDOT's local program administrator.
And that includes taking a hard look at what programs the agency funds that it doesn't have to.
MoDOT has grappled with funding problems in recent years, a situation the previous highway commission chairman described as forcing the agency to "lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis."
A 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax died last year, and the chances of a similar measure advancing this year remain uncertain. MoDOT has responded to the Legislature's inaction by making plans to dip heavily into its cash reserves to secure federal matching funds in coming years.
The uncertainty that affects MoDOT funding is having ripple effects on local governments.
If, for example, MoDOT moves forward with the plan to withhold the federal funds, the St. Louis region could end up losing $10.4 million over the next five years, said Jason Lange, a transportation planner for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the region's planning arm.
During the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, East-West Gateway received more than $4.6 million in bridge replacement program money, the largest chunk of money of any city or urban area.
More than $14 million of such federal dollars went toward replacing the Kingshighway bridge in south St. Louis, covering about two-thirds of the $21 million project.
Smaller amounts went to smaller cities this year, including almost $30,000 to Pacific, $34,000 to Eureka, $25,000 to De Soto and more than $45,000 to Washington in Franklin County.
In Troy, Mo., such money helped fund a traffic light and additional turn lanes at a busy intersection that had been the site of traffic backups and accidents, said Mayor Mark Clark.
This fiscal year, Troy got almost $30,000 in the federal funds through MoDOT. His city saves up yearly allocations, then combines those with its funds to do a big project. It has about $185,000 set aside now, money that will be used to tear up and re-pave East Cherry Street, one of the busiest streets in town that Clark said is in terrible shape.
"It could slow down some street repairs because we'd have to wait a little longer until we have enough money, or break up a project into smaller pieces," he said of the loss of the federal dollars.
Still, he understands why MoDOT is taking such a step and said he'd already met with the area engineer, who gave him a heads-up of what to expect.
"The money will definitely be missed," Clark said. "But I understand where MoDOT is coming from."
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