The Missouri Department of Transportation’s chief engineer last Thursday gave a group of county officials a hard dose of reality.

Speaking at the semiannual meeting of the Northeast Missouri Association of County Commissioners and Clerks, Chief Engineer Ed Hassinger said the agency is shifting its mission to maintaining what it has.

“We will take care of the existing system,” Hassinger said.

MoDOT has been struggling with several funding issues. Chief among them are the agency’s inability to match federal funds, and the state Legislature’s refusal to raise the dedicated gas tax or find a new source of revenue for transportation needs.

MoDOT recently made deep cuts in personnel and projects in order to make the agency leaner so more funding can be directed to needed road and bridge projects, Hassinger said. Earlier this year MoDOT closed three district offices, including one in St. Clair, while reducing management.

Hassinger noted that The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission recently adopted a plan that calls for reducing MoDOT’s staff size by 1,200, closing 131 facilities and selling more than 740 pieces of equipment.

Officials hope to save $512 million by 2015 and use those funds for road and bridge projects.

Meanwhile the budget for the new fiscal year contains the smallest MoDOT appropriation in a decade, mainly because the state’s gas tax is bringing in less money. Hassinger said motorists are driving less and cars are becoming more fuel efficient.

“So we wind up with a smaller pot of money to devote to maintaining and enhancing our transportation system,” Hassinger said.

The amount of money MoDOT has to award to contractors for resurfacing projects has fallen from a six-year average of $1.2 billion a year to $700 million a year. Hassinger said that is enough to maintain the transportation system, but not much else.

“Our tax revenue will go down every year,” he said. “That revenue stream will go down for the counties too.”

None of this affects two big projects scheduled for Warren County: the Missouri River bridge at Washington, and straightening Route 47 at Hopewell Hill.

“MoDOT has already committed to do those projects, so they would not be changed,” said Erik Maninga, area engineer for Lincoln, Warren and Montgomery counties. “The projects that are already in our five-year statewide transportation improvement program will be completed. However as we look forward to adding projects to the STIP, basically you will only see projects that are maintaining roads and bridges.”

Meanwhile, the funding is not enough to do all the road and bridge projects Missourians want.

MoDOT continues working on long-range planning, including holding statewide listening sessions. Hassinger saidthe agency has received thousands of requests. The top requests were taking care of existing roads, promoting safety, and economic development and other modes of transportation, like trails, sidewalks and public transit.

Meanwhile there seems to be no appetitite in Jefferson City for higher taxes to fund road improvements. All recent attempts have failed in the Legislature.

Sales Tax Proposal

However, a group known as Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs is working to obtain signatures for an initiative petition that would ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax for major improvement projects.

The goal is to place the tax issue on the November 2014 ballot.

The petition indicates that the tax, if approved, would have a 10-year sunset provision. It is projected to raise about $8 billion over the 10-year life of the issue.

Five percent of revenue raised would go to counties, another 5 percent to cities, and 90 percent would be earmarked for major statewide improvements like rebuilding Interstate 70 across Missouri.

It’s the same measure that the Missouri Legislature killed in the last session.

Hassinger said that regardless of the agency’s funding status, MoDOT will continue long-range planning and focus on what it can accomplish with what it has, and that includes keeping Missouri’s roads and bridges in good condition.

“My mantra is we will figure out some way to help,” he said.