Missouri Hopes Focus on Transportation Performance Pays Off

E-newsletter Issue #120 | August 15, 2013

Interstate 70 is a major artery through the nation’s mid-section that extends from Utah to Maryland. The halfway point on that journey lies somewhere near Kansas City, the site of the 2013 CSG National Conference.

Like a lot of the nation’s aging infrastructure, I-70 needs to be rebuilt to better serve today’s transportation needs, said Dave Nichols, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation—or MoDOT— who will speak Sept. 20 at a session hosted by the CSG Transportation Public Policy Committee.

But like a lot of other states, Missouri is struggling to determine where the dollars to do that will come from, even as MoDOT has made significant strides in recent years to convince Missourians their tax dollars that go to transportation are being well spent. 

“(I-70) was actually the first project that was awarded for construction on the interstate system in the United States,” said Nichols. “That was in 1956. … Its design life was 20 years and so we (have) more than doubled the useful life of that corridor.”

The corridor was designed for lighter trucks and less traffic. The congestion on it today is to a point where the state can’t perform any significant preventive maintenance or repairs without causing significant congestion and backups for miles.

It would take an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion to rebuild the 200-mile stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, transportation officials say. That’s money the state DOT, which has seen a substantially reduced budget in recent years, doesn’t have. A stagnant federal transportation program only adds to the uncertainty about the future of such infrastructure projects. 

Bridges also are a concern in Missouri, as they are elsewhere in the nation, Nichols said. The state recently completed a program to improve 802 bridges across the state—two years ahead of schedule and under budget. But that still leaves 2,000 deficient bridges in the state, he said. 

“We’re in continual catch-up mode on those,” said Nichols

The reduced MoDOT budget will make it nearly impossible for Nichols and his agency to keep up with all the repairs and maintenance in the years ahead, let alone to expand capacity to attract economic development or to speed the flow of freight between Missouri’s borders.

“We went from $1.3 billion in construction projects (in 2004-05) down to $650 to $700 million and that’s where we’re at today,” he said. 

Nichols is keeping a wary eye on Congress, which faces a daunting task next year in trying to pass a successor to MAP-21, the 2012 legislation that authorized federal transportation programs for two years. Congressional leaders also must find a long-term fix for a Highway Trust Fund that has run out of money due to declining gas tax revenues.

“We’ve got a year before it has to be done, but the conversations that we have with the (Missouri) Congressional delegation are that MAP-21 is competing with some very, very critical issues in Congress and we all know how challenging it is to get anything through Congress right now,” Nichols said. “The Highway Trust Fund is about to become insolvent. … I would say that reauthorization is going to be less about policy (this time) and more about how we fix the funding challenge.”

Just as numerous other states have done recently, Missouri has explored ways to find additional state revenues for transportation. A blue ribbon committee met last year and issued a menu of possible funding options. But legislation that would have had Missouri voters decide on a ballot measure to install a 1-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation was filibustered in the state Senate during the 2013 legislative session. 

Nichols said a coalition of stakeholders is now seeking signatures for a voter initiative petition that would do much the same thing. 

“Even with the senators who filibustered the bill, the support for transportation (was) there,” he said. “The issue is: What is the right way to generate the revenue for transportation and other critical infrastructure needs in our state? 

“Our legislators understand the issue. … They understand this paradox that we’re in. Nobody wants an increase in taxes, yet everybody wants to have a robust infrastructure system in their state.” 

Leading the Way on Performance

Transportation stakeholders who support a tax increase to fund transportation face a higher hurdle in Missouri than those in other states since a vote of the people is required to raise taxes. Although Nichols’ agency is not allowed to advocate for the tax increase, he and others believe MoDOT and its hard-won reputation could play a role in convincing the public additional investment is the prudent course now. 

Surveys show the agency is generally held in high regard among Missourians after a decade during which MoDOT improved its customer service, put transparency and accountability initiatives in place and became a national leader in performance measurement and management. 

“We have made performance management part of the culture of the organization and not just something else we have to do,” said Mara Campbell, customer relations director at MoDOT, who also will speak in Kansas City. 

That emphasis on performance came in handy as MoDOT sought to become a leaner agency in the wake of the tighter budgets of recent years. It began downsizing in 2011, reducing staff by more than 1,200 employees—nearly 20 percent of the staff. It eliminated 131 facilities, including three district offices, and 744 pieces of equipment.

 “All to save $511 million over a five-year period of time with $117 million every year thereafter and the only way we were able to do that and know where we could do that was because we had performance information that allowed us to make good business decisions,” said Campbell.

And that emphasis will likely serve Missouri well as MAP-21’s provisions with regard to performance move forward. Under the legislation, states are expected to invest in projects to achieve individual state performance targets that are expected to make progress toward national goals in safety, infrastructure condition, congestion reduction, system reliability, freight movement and economic vitality, environmental sustainability and reduced project delivery delays. 

“Every state is different and every state has embraced performance management in a different way,” Campbell said. “Performance management really is a business philosophy about using data and managing by your performance to ensure end results are what they need to be. … (But) MAP-21 and the performance indicators in there are not about managing DOT business. It’s about managing the infrastructure of the United States.”

Campbell and others have concerns about what performance measurement in the MAP-21 era may bring. For one thing, most of the dates and deadlines in that part of the bill extend beyond the expiration of the legislation, so some are concerned that MAP-21’s successor could make changes to the program even as states are just getting their own performance efforts up and running. 

Another major concern is the lack of funding included in MAP-21 to support data collection, something that could become a burdensome unfunded mandate for state agencies and others in the years ahead, Campbell said. Ensuring the reliability and comparability of the data collected also will be important.

“We’ve got to make sure that (we’re comparing) apples to apples because people will compare us (to other states),” said Campbell. “They already do. So if we really are going to do this right, we’ve got to ensure that the data is right so we are communicating the right messages.”

Campbell will be watching closely as the U.S. Department of Transportation issues rules with regard to performance indicators between now and next spring, and she advises her colleagues in other states to do the same. 

“(The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) as an organization has given their recommendations (to U.S. DOT) on what the metrics should be, potentially what the target might need to be for every state (and) kind of given some general guidance, but until we actually see what U.S. DOT comes out with, we really don’t know … what’s going to be required,” she said.

One thing Campbell and other state officials will be looking for from the feds is flexibility. The performance indicators need to take into account not just the diversity of states, including their geographic and environmental differences and unique transportation challenges, but also which states, like Missouri, may already be fairly far along in meeting some key performance goals.

“While safety is important to all of us, we all have chosen different strategies to help reduce fatalities,” she said. “On every mile of interstate in the state of Missouri, we have median guard cable so we can reduce fatality crossover accidents and we’ve reduced them to literally zero. I mean, it’s been incredible. But guess what. We implemented that strategy three years ago. So now I’ve got a federal requirement of a performance measure and I’ve already kicked butt. … So do I get credit for that? Because I can’t continue to make that kind of progress.”

But MoDOT officials are hoping performance management, customer service and the downsizing of recent years have allowed them to bank enough good will with Missourians so they’ll soon be able to make more progress in addressing more of the state’s transportation needs.

“We can’t continue to get smaller and smaller or there’s no state agency left,” said Nichols. “We can’t cut our way to prosperity and the opportunity is there for our state to grow and we want to make sure that we have ourselves focused on that for the future.”

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