Expansive Commitments Drain MoDOT Dollars
As we’ve discussed many times before, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) faces a serious budget shortfall in the next few years. Specifically, the department will soon no longer have the funds to maintain, much less improve, the existing state highway system. While we’ve pointed out that the major contributing factor to this predicament is stagnation in the user-funding base, there’s a spending side to the equation as well: it’s clear that the sheer size of Missouri’s state highway system is putting undue strain on MoDOT.
As state officials are quick to point out (in arguing for increasing MoDOT funding), Missouri has the seventh-largest state highway system in the country by total miles. However, what they are less likely to point out is that Missouri’s state highways include many small and little-used routes that would be handled by cities and counties in most other states. For instance, despite the fact that Illinois’s highway system is less than half the size of Missouri’s, total traffic in that state is one-third greater than in Missouri.
Unfortunately for MoDOT, low traffic levels do not mean low costs. The mileage alone (~24,000) of Missouri’s least-used highways results in significant annual capital and maintenance spending. In 2013, for example, nearly 30% of the state’s total highway spending ($414 million) went toward work on routes that primarily serve short-distance, intra-county travel. Most states only set aside between 1% and 5% of total spending maintaining smaller roads, but because of our high number of local roads, Missouri uses about 16% of its funds maintaining these types of routes. That MoDOT is forced to spend so much on maintaining smaller local routes is especially difficult, because federal aid is much harder to acquire both for maintenance spending and ancillary routes (which are not part of the National Highway System).
Missouri’s abnormally extensive state highway system is the result of decades of state policy, with programs like “Get Missouri Out of the Mud” (starting in the 1920s), the creation of “Farm-to-Market” roads, and many other ad hoc decisions constantly expanding MoDOT’s responsibilities. While MoDOT officials have talked about stopping state highway growth, the percentage of MoDOT spending that goes towards maintaining Missouri’s smallest state highways has greatly increased in the last 20 years:
% MoDOT Spending on Small Highway Maintenance
Given MoDOT’s financial constraints and the skepticism with which Missouri residents view any tax increase for the state highway system, it may be time for state policy makers to reevaluate the scope of Missouri’s state highway system. Returning routes that are local in character to local governments might both relieve much of MoDOT’s funding problem and give local residents the autonomy in prioritizing their own transportation needs.