Patrick McKenna

Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, addresses the Washington Area Highway Transportation Committee in 2016.

With the recent passage of a gradual 12.5 cents-per-gallon state gasoline tax increase and the possibility of getting billions more for Missouri highways and bridges from a $1 trillion federal infrastructure package, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) is in as good a place for funding as it has been in a quarter century.

A large chunk of the new money could be headed toward projects in Franklin County, particularly to help deal with traffic on Highway 47.

Although the gas tax increase was criticized by some, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said it was “desperately needed.”

“It will enable us to really come back around in many of the areas that we haven’t been able to,” he said.

The timing of the gas tax revenue “couldn’t have been better,” coming at the same time as the possible federal bill, McKenna said, but he added that continuing worker shortages are a potential problem.

The first 2.5 cents-per-gallon increase will go into effect Oct. 1.

By the time the tax reaches its full 29.5 cents-per-gallon amount in five years, McKenna estimates it will bring in $500 million in additional revenue per year to the state.

MoDOT is estimating between 20 and 25 percent of that will go to rebates on the gas tax drivers are allowed to request. That would be between $100 million and $125 million.

But along with the money that will come out of that total from rebates, MoDOT will share revenue with Missouri’s cities and counties, with each receiving 15 percent. That takes $150 million from the state total.

The state and federal revenue would be a “perfect compliment to each other,” McKenna said.

“What it means is that beyond our existing planned work in our capital plan, we think we can add, in the next five years, close to $2 billion to $3 billion,” he said.

Franklin County projects

Projects that were placed on MoDOT’s $3 billion list of high-priority unfunded needs will now likely be able to proceed with money from the gas tax and federal infrastructure bill, McKenna said.

Most notable locally among those are safety and capacity improvements on Highway 47 from Washington south to St. Clair. According to MoDOT’s project list, the work would increase economic growth and improve safety.

The Highway 47 project is listed to be done in two phases, with the first phase costing $22.6 million and the second costing $45.2 million.

“They’re looking at the areas that we need to widen there,” McKenna said. “There is a desire on the part of the community to do multistep improvements on (Highway) 47. Ultimately, the idea is to have a much more robust facility because of the traffic volumes that we’re seeing.”

All the projects have to go through the approval process with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which will help determine exactly what the design will be, said Linda Wilson Horn, MoDOT communications director.

“We have years of projects listed in the unfunded needs partly because, obviously, all the money doesn’t come at once, and different projects are at different stages,” she said. “It’s all a part of the overall plan.”

East-West Gateway’s long-range plan estimates that total costs of improving Highway 47 could eventually reach $175 million, Horn said.

Yet to be determined is whether there will be enough funding in the new gas tax revenue, as well as the federal infrastructure bill, to widen Highway 47 to four lanes for the entire 13-mile stretch from Washington to St. Clair, which Presiding Franklin County Commissioner Tim Brinker is seeking. Brinker also wants to widen Highway 50 from Union east to the Interstate 44 interchange.

“Like everything, it’s time and money,” McKenna said of the “4 Lanes for Franklin” project. “That, absolutely, is at least partially reflected in the unfunded needs document.”

MoDOT also lists a total of $6.8 million that will improve parts of Highway 50 west of Union. Highway HH between Highway 30 in Hemker and Highway O in Catawissa could see $12.1 million in improvements.

The new revenue also could mean additional projects will be approved in the five-year plan for 2023 to 2027, McKenna said.

Challenges

The extra revenue comes at a time when MoDOT has lost 60 percent of its organization in less than five years, with more than 3,000 of 5,000 employees leaving state government, McKenna said. “The vast majority are recognizing that, frankly, there have been more lucrative opportunities virtually anywhere for the type of work that we do,” he said.

That is in addition to reductions of about 1,200 people a decade ago, when MoDOT went from 10 districts to seven.

MoDOT is “way off-market” in paying employees, even compared with Franklin County and cities, McKenna said.

“The basic services, like plowing snow — we are very challenged,” McKenna said. “We’re anticipating a very difficult winter coming up because, at present, in terms of total positions that are needed in fighting a statewide storm, we’re probably about 500 to 600 people below what we need to do that. So it’s very concerning.”

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission has looked at ways to make pay more competitive with limited success.

Construction and engineering companies MoDOT contracts with also are having difficulty in filling positions, McKenna said.

That all means MoDOT will have to approach an expanded transportation program with 1,400 fewer employees than it did the last time it had a gas tax increase in 1996, McKenna said. It also faces much higher construction costs than the last time it had a gas tax increase in 1996.

“It’s a very significant concern of mine and of the commission’s, and we are looking to address that,” he said. “One thing we don’t want to do is squander, maybe, a generational opportunity to get some work done.”