We can't get away from it; we use it all the time.
Missouri's transportation infrastructure touches everyone, somehow, every day.
But the pot of money used to maintain that infrastructure is shrinking, so the Missouri Department of Transportation is beating the bushes to see how the people who use that infrastructure want that money spent.
The department held a listening post on Tuesday on transportation planning for the future with 35 area business leaders, economic developers and city officials to hear what people think about transportation priorities under two scenarios; one with current levels of funding of $1.4 billion annually, including $600 million for highway maintenance, $375 million for highway upgrades, $379 million for county and city highways and $69 million for other forms of transportation; the second with $600 million added to the transportation pot.
"The reality is there is less money, more projects, more needs," said Joplin Chamber of Commerce President Rob O'Brian, one of the hosts for the session. "And so this session today is an opportunity to bring the public together to talk about the issues that we see in transportation, what we would like to see in the future of transportation and how we address those needs."
Becky Baltz, chief engineer for the Southwest Missouri district of MoDOT, said gasoline tax revenue was shrinking due to more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, while the cost of material for building and maintaining highways had increased dramatically since the last increase in the gasoline tax about 20 years ago.
She said MoDOT was able to complete more than 4,200 projects, valued at $11.6 billion, over the past decade after voters elected to earmark all the gasoline tax revenue and other fees to MoDOT, but the new money generated by the voters' action is committed and no new money is coming in.
"In recent years we've been able to do $1.2 billion per year in construction projects," Baltz said. "That number is now about $700 million. For MoDOT, what it means at a $700 million level, is we can take care of the roads we have, but those great new projects aren't going to come along very often."
The discussion groups discussed the two scenarios with a facilitator with each group taking notes. The attendees discussed the results of their discussion later in the session.
Steve Stockam, director of the Joplin Regional Airport, said maintaining existing roads, bridges and infrastructure was "the root of everything."
"As it deteriorates, everything deteriorates," Stockam said. "Safety deteriorates, the opportunity for economic development deteriorates, so if we don't maintain what we have, we're continuing to get behind the eight-ball. Whatever we hope to aspire to, we're never going to get there unless we've kept up on our maintenance."
Carthage Chamber of Commerce President Mark Elliff emphasized the importance of partnerships between MoDOT and communities to plan transportation improvements in a way that enhances safety and benefits the communities.
When asked if the current level of funding was adequate, Jimmer Pinjuv, developer of Wildwood Acres between Joplin and the Kansas state line, said he didn't think so.
"I'm just a big believer in if you're not growing, you're dying," Pinjuv said. "I don't think there's any way that that funding will cover everything. We know it's a couple billion dollars short of our wish list. I think really for the state to grow we need income sources for cities and counties, we need income, we need growth."
Pat Goff, with the Carthage Chamber, said the process of distributing transportation money in the state has to change to help the state do more with less money.
"In either scenario, you can't grow unless you break down the old paradigm," Goff said. "If you put $600 million on top of a problem that's twice that big, all we're doing is boosting everything a little bit, we still don't have the money to reinvest."
Baltz said MoDOT was holding listening sessions throughout the state and planned to publicize the results of the sessions in the fall of 2013.