This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2009 - The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission today approved 32 road resurfacing projects, mostly in rural areas, that will be funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – commonly called the economic stimulus package.
Projects for the St. Louis area were noticeably missing from the commission’s monthly agenda of action items, much to the surprise of some St. Louis area officials.
Last week, MoDOT announced a “provisional list” of five projects for the St. Louis area at the East-West Gateway Council of Governments’ monthly meeting. (To see the Beacon's story, click here .) Officials said they would sent the list to the commission, which they expected would act on it at its meeting Wednesday. The commission is a six-member bipartisan board that governs the Missouri Department of Transportation. Once the commission approves a list of projects, Gateway would have to vote on it.
Because of time sensitivity — the stimulus package has stringent deadlines for projects and the clock has begun ticking on use of the funds — Gateway had suggested it might hold a special meeting to act on the recommendations it expected the commission to announce for the St. Louis region. But when the commission’s agenda was posted on MoDOT’s website earlier this week, the St. Louis projects were not on it.
Some have speculated that St. Louis area projects were missing because MoDOT might be re-considering how much it has targeted for the city of St. Louis.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay took MoDOT to task at last week’s Gateway meeting for designating only $5 million for St. Louis — and that’s for repaving and making pedestrian walkway improvements to one street: Memorial Drive. Slay, who was expecting much more to be designated for the city, said the stimulus is actually $1.2 million because $3.8 million had already been allocated for the project.
Slay also criticized MoDOT’s plan because, according to the federal government, distressed areas are supposed to have priority in getting the stimulus money.
“We felt all along they were going to have to address this issue somehow,” Gateway executive director Les Sterman said.
MoDOT officials had said the list it sent to the commission was “provisional,” but “they certainly acted as if that was what was going to happen,” he added. Given the time restrictions of the stimulus bill — projects face “tight and unforgiving deadlines” and must be completed within three years, according to Gateway — the agency was expecting the commission’s quick endorsement of the St. Louis projects.
“We have a very short time window to do these projects, and the more time we spend trying to decide which projects we’re going to do, the less time we have to spend doing them,” Sterman said.
The urgency was amplified last month when, within minutes of President Barack Obama’s signing of the recovery act, the state broke ground on what was billed as the nation's first construction project under the federal economic recovery plan: replacement of the Osage River Bridge one mile east of Tuscumbia.
A week before that, Rahn boasted at a press conference that Missouri would be the first state in the nation to put stimulus construction funds into action.
Some have suggested launching Tuscumbia Bridge project to coincide with the signing of the bill was a publicity stunt.
“And you guys just fell for it,” St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said with a laugh referring to the press. “Has anybody looked at the Tuscumbia Bridge project? I think that bridge is the same age as the Weldon Spring Bridge and there’s probably 10 or 20 times more traffic on it (the Weldon Spring bridge). Maybe they need a new bridge but so do we.”
Ehlmann suggested that the commission should have evaluated “that bridge and every other one” and “not just one favorite project that somebody picked out.” Ehlmann said he, too, thought the commission was going to vote on St. Louis area projects today. He planned to attend the meeting — until he saw the agenda and realized the St. Louis projects were not on it.
Sterman also questioned why the commission didn’t act on the St. Louis projects while the Tuscumbia project was rushed onto the schedule.
“I think it’s odd that here they are actually starting construction on projects the day the bill was signed and yet here we are a couple of weeks later and we can’t even get a list and probably won’t have one for another month or so,” he said. “They told us that the only thing that standing between us and that project list was the approval of the commission.”
The commission usually meets monthly but could schedule a special meeting.
Gateway's Local Projects
Last week Gateway announced its allocations of $66.9 million in stimulus funds that it controls for local projects. In Missouri, they were $22 million to St. Louis County, $20 million to the city of St. Louis, $8.8 million to St. Charles County, $4.2 million to Jefferson County and $3.5 million to Franklin County. In Madison and St. Clair counties each got $3.8 million and Monroe got $440,000.
But the money MoDOT is dispersing, Sterman said, is the “big pot of money as opposed to the funds for the local projects.”
Of the $637 million MoDOT received in stimulus funds, it has said intends to spend $164 million in the St. Louis area. In addition to the Memorial Drive project, MoDOT would spend $71 million for Route 141 in St. Louis County, $48 million for Route 364 (Page Avenue) in St. Charles County, $26 million for I-44 in Franklin County and $15 million for I-55/Route M in Jefferson County.
Other local officials complained at last week’s Gateway meeting that the St. Louis region isn’t getting — and hasn’t been getting — its fair share of transportation funds. The region provides 51 percent of federal tax income but receives only about 35 percent of the funds for highway projects, they said.
What the State Approved
A Missouri Department of Transportation Department press release says the projects the commission approved Wednesday total $38,992,000 and will “support” an estimated 1,000 jobs.
Most of the work involves laying asphalt to make road surfaces smoother. More than $14 million will be used to resurface sections of Interstate 70 in Lafayette and Cooper counties. The projects are in Carroll, Macon, Schuyler, Putnam, Ralls, Monroe, Marion, Lafayette, Platte, Clinton, Ray, Clay, Cooper, Maries, Pulaski, Newton, Barry, Vernon, Jasper, Barry, Lawrence, Stone, Taney, Ripley and Butler counties.
“MoDOT is analyzing the provisions of the economic recovery legislation to determine how it will spend the rest of the stimulus money not already obligated,” the agency’s press release read. Calls to the agency were not returned by late Wednesday. More information on the projects, go to www.modot.org/readytogo .
Kathie Sutin is a freelance journalist.