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MoDOT director hopes to educate lawmakers and new governor on Missouri's transportation needs

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Patrick McKenna has begun his second year as director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, and he’s hoping for more understanding and results from Missouri lawmakers and Gov.-elect Eric Greitens.

Many of last year’s proposals to find more money for transportation went nowhere, including a bill to raise the state’s fuel tax and a ballot measure to raise cigarette taxes.  St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin sat down with McKenna to talk about why Missouri leaders and citizens can’t seem to agree on how to fund transportation.

What would you like to see come out of the legislature (in 2017)?

“The main thing for us is to establish a baseline of knowledge about the transportation system and what further investment could mean for Missouri citizens and taxpayers. There is quite a gap between how people understand what they pay for and what they receive in transportation in Missouri. It’s paid for by user fees, primarily gas tax, license and registration fees, and motor vehicle sales taxes. I think people are surprised when they learn how little they pay.”

We keep hearing that there is going to be a revenue shortfall. How does the immediate future look for transportation in Missouri?

“I think those issues continue to be discussed around the state, everywhere I go around the state, (at) chambers of commerce (and) rotary clubs. I think a lot of people agree that additional investment is warranted, but what it comes down to in public policy is how do we get there?”

Have you talked to Gov.-elect Greitens yet?

“We’ve met with the transition team to discuss the budget, and I thought we had a very good discussion. We have more (talks) scheduled.”

Have you or Greitens made any specific proposals regarding fuel taxes, Gov. Nixon’s idea of turning I-70 into a toll road or anything else?

“No. With a new administration, I think we just need to discuss where we are at the moment. Regarding tolling, we’re looking at a more hybrid approach, such as the possibility of managed lanes. We might be able to build a model where additional capacity might be tolled – existing lanes on I-70, for instance, might continue to be a freeway, while a (newly created) third lane might be tolled.”

There have been recent articles exploring solar stations at rest areas and the eventual creation of “smart” highways, has any specific ground work been laid toward those?

“The ‘Road to Tomorrow’ team has been working on this, as the I-70 corridor is kind of a testing ground for new technologies and ideas. We’ve received over 350 ideas from the public and have been vetting them over the past 18 months. We’ve got requests for proposals, and we’re looking at whether the technology can be leveraged with the infrastructure in a manner that might generate revenue. We don’t know yet, but we’ve opened ourselves up to those possibilities.”

How does MoDOT’s current budget look as far as maintaining roads and bridges?

“The passage of last year’s federal transportation bill was kind of a game changer for us. It brought stability to the federal dollar so the state didn’t have to incur all the risk of federal reimbursements. We’re maintaining all roads in Missouri, not as perfectly as we’d like, but we’re not abandoning maintenance.”

Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation
Credit Missouri Department of Transportation
Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation

We’re about to have a new president as well as a new governor. Have you or anyone from MoDOT or MHTC been in touch with president-elect Trump’s transition team or anyone else in Washington?

“We had a recent meeting with AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials). I think the selection of the next transportation secretary (Elaine Chao) is a very good thing, and I believe we’ll work very well with (her). I believe our congressional delegation has very good relations there, and I think that’s very good news for Missouri.”

Before we wrap this up, is there is one particular message you want Missouri lawmakers to get for 2017?

“We are ready and willing as an organization to work together to solve transportation issues for this state, to improve safety and reliability, and to improve economic conditions.”

And is there any particular message for Gov.-elect Greitens?

“Transportation is one of those universal issues that when you do it well, nobody notices, but when you don’t, everybody notices. We take the responsibility seriously and we look forward to working with the new administration.”

Hear more of Marshall Griffin's interview with Patrick McKenna.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.