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Road building in Missouri hits money barricade

By Ken Leiser and Jack Naudi
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Missouri's highway building boom is beginning to go bust this year, providing relief to St. Louis-area motorists who have grown weary of orange construction barrels, and grief to road builders and their workers.

State transportation officials say spending on highway construction and right-of-way acquisition throughout Missouri this year has been cut nearly in half. That has shifted the focus away from long-range, big-ticket ventures such as replacing Interstate 70 across the state in favor of more routine maintenance of the state's aging pavement and bridges.

In the Missouri part of the region, that has meant a drop from $280 million in the budget year that ended June 30 to a projected $150 million during the current 12-month period, said Ed Hassinger, the Department of Transportation's district engineer in St. Louis.

Hassinger said the public would see fewer large undertakings such as the Page Avenue Extension, the interchange linking Interstates 270 and 170, and the lengthy reconstruction along I-70 in St. Louis and St. Louis County – all of which are wrapping up this budget year.

"That stuff just won't happen," Hassinger said. "In the long run, the public will notice it and be dissatisfied."

Linda Wilson, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said the long-awaited face lift for Highway 40 (Interstate 64) between St. Louis and Frontenac could fall behind schedule without a new infusion of cash. A new I-70 span across the Mississippi also could be imperiled.

The noticeable drop in highway spending can be traced largely to aggressive borrowing earlier this decade. Hoping to jump-start Missouri's road-building program, the Legislature authorized the Department of Transportation to issue up to $2.25 billion in bonds through 2006.

It pushed spending to artificially high levels for a few years.

But the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission halted borrowing after the level reached $900 million because "that was as far into debt as they wanted to go," said Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Briggs.

To compound matters, the state now has to spend $75 million a year over the next two decades to pay off the bonds.
Some, including St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth, consider the borrowing binge to have been a major miscalculation.

It proved especially crippling after Missouri voters overwhelmingly defeated a statewide transportation tax measure in August 2002. The ballot measure would have generated about $483 million a year by increasing sales and motor fuel taxes.

"The voters made a conscious decision that they didn't want to commit any more money" to highway projects and "that they like the roads the way they are," said Ortwerth, who opposes government borrowing for nearly all but emergency purposes.

Ortwerth predicts the funding shortage will also become "a major pressure point" politically as local agencies vie for scarce transportation dollars.

Motorists are buying less gasoline during this latest economic downturn and the statewide funding formula has been changed, both contributing to the sagging finances in the St. Louis region.

Neighboring Illinois also is spending less on highway projects, but the drop has not been as severe. The highway and road budget approved for this fiscal year was $1.7 billion statewide, compared with $2.3 billion the year before, said Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Both states' funding picture could brighten somewhat, depending on the fate of legislation in Washington.

A six-year, $318 billion highway bill passed by the U.S. Senate last month would pump an additional $233 million a year into Missouri, compared with funding levels in the last highway bill, according to a spokesman for Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. Missouri stands to get $5.4 billion over the next six years to spend on highways while Illinois could expect $7.6 billion during that same time span.

The White House prefers to spend less. The House has not yet taken action on a reauthorization bill, Bond said.

In Jefferson City, Missouri state Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake Saint Louis, has proposed ending the diversion of gasoline tax money to nonhighway purposes as part of an incremental approach to restoring public trust in state transportation funding. The measure would ultimately set aside part of the motor vehicle sales tax.

If voters approve it, the measure could net $10 million to $11 million a year for road construction.

Construction companies that specialize in highway work have seen significant drops in business since Missouri began cutting back on highway spending last summer.

"There was a definite decline in the number of projects that we were bidding on from a MoDOT standpoint," said Tom Barta, senior vice president for government and civic affairs at Fred Weber Inc. of Maryland Heights.

While Weber historically has concentrated on projects in Missouri and Southern Illinois, the company could soon look outside that territory.

In addition, some contractors and subcontractors are bidding on projects they might otherwise have ignored.

Hoette Concrete Construction of Maryland Heights, for example, pours concrete mostly for residential construction. That turf, however, is being invaded by concrete contractors who have lost highway business, said company President Joe Hoette.

The asphalt industry has taken a significant hit as well, said David Yates, executive director of the Missouri Asphalt Pavement Association.

"It hurts us bad," Yates said. "Contractors are just trying to keep going. Until we get new funds, it's not looking good for anybody in the highway construction industry."

The reduction in highway money has had the biggest impact on construction workers in several trades: operating engineers who run the equipment used to pave and build roads; cement masons who are responsible for smooth concrete pours; laborers who provide a variety of nonspecialized tasks; ironworkers who erect bridges; and carpenters who build the framing structures needed in road and bridge work.

Jim LaMantia, business manager of Ironworkers Local 396 in St. Louis, said highway-related projects accounted for roughly a quarter of the work of his 1,500 members.

"MoDOT (contracts) are very important to us, and they're just not out there," he said.

Local 396 hit a peak five years ago, when members logged 3 million hours of work. Last year, the number fell to 1.9 million, due largely to the decline in highway work, LaMantia said.

But LaMantia hopes other work will offset the reduction in road building. That includes the new St. Louis Cardinals ballpark and a massive rebuilding program by the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Said Joe Tocco, business manager of Laborers Local 53 in St. Louis: "We're going to have a couple of (casino) boats come to St. Louis, too. If the highway work goes down, hopefully the building work goes up. We're kind of optimistic."