Exit Interview With MoDOT Director | KCUR

Exit Interview With MoDOT Director

Apr 9, 2015

Dave Nichols, who has been with the Missouri Department of Transportation for 31 years, will retire effective May 1.
Credit Missouri Department of Transportation

Missouri has the seventh largest highway system in the country, but it ranks 46th nationally in funding per mile. That ranking could drop still more. Last year, the Missouri Department of Transportation spent $700 million on road improvements— in two years, that amount will be cut my more than half. 

Dave Nichols has been with the Missouri Department of Transportation for 31 years, serving as director for the last two. He recently announced his retirement, effective May 1.

Nichols spoke with Up To Date host Steve Kraske about the hard choices the department will have to make and the future of the state's transportation systems. 

Interview highlights:

On the gap between the current and future budget:  

It takes about $485 million just to maintain the system in the condition the roads are in today, so we're $160 million short [with a $325 million budget in 2016]. If there are any capital improvements, any additional work that needs to be done, that's on top of that. It's a pretty big gap, and that's what we're talking about with the legislature right now — how do we take care of that gap that we have.

In 2017, we will not be able to match $167 million of our federal dollars. In 2018, that number grows to $400 million and last thing any of us in Missouri want to do is have tax dollars that are paid from Missourians go to Washington and not come back to our state.

On what it means for Missouri roads and highways if a $325 million budget comes to pass in 2016: 

The real crux of it is that for $325 million a year in construction we cannot take care of a 34 thousand mile system. What I proposed to the highway commission, which they adopted just a couple of months ago, was a "325 Plan", which identified 8000 miles of primary roads that we will invest the $325 million in to keep those roads in a state of good repair.

The remaining 26 thousand miles we will only do limited maintenance on: plow the snow, those kinds of things, patch potholes, but we will not be able to do capital improvement. There just is not enough revenue. As a matter of fact we’ve already got 5 bridges in our state that are closed today.

Unfortunately, the pain is equal all over the state. It doesn't make any difference if it's in the urban or rural areas. This is a challenge that we’ve got to find a solution [for] very quickly.

On the attempt to raise highways funds with a 3/4 cent sales tax, which was rejected by Missouri voters: 

It was a disappointment for all of us, especially those of us that are very close inside the transportation system, because it was a very comprehensive transportation funding solution.

Amendment 7 was a comprehensive transportation funding package that was going to fund all modes of transportation all over the state. The next phase of the streetcar was a component of the project list, so it was disappointing. But the voters, it's their decision on how they want to spend their hard earned tax dollars, and we have to live with that decision.

What we’re talking about here today is transportation funding "small ball" as I call it, where we’re just trying to match federal funding for highways and bridges... Right now it is 'OK how do we take care of the roads and bridges we have from a preservation perspective.' We have not even brought up the conversation of how we fund other modes of transportation. 

On the idea of building I-70 as a toll road: 

There are a lot of conversations going on about the opportunity of using tolling as a user-fee to rebuild I-70 and add capacity. We’ve been talking about this $325 system to just take care of the roads we have. When you think about a project like I-70, which is a $2 billion project at its basic cost, there's literally no way to raise fuel taxes enough to pay for a corridor like that. So we have got to come up with a funding mechanism that allows us to be able to keep pace with safety needs, economic development needs and just the preservation need itself, so we can keep competitive with other states around the country.

Tolling is a very viable alternative and we know that tolling is a sensitive issue. It's very polarizing, so it's a challenge that we’re dealing with. But when it comes to a project like I-70 there aren't a whole lot of other alternatives.

On whether the announcement of his retirement had anything to do with the low budget:

Not at all. I’ve had 31 years and I’ve just enjoyed and loved my job at MoDOT.  I just thought it was the right timing for me, both personally and professionally, to move on. This conversation about transportation funding has been going on for many, many years and the timing had nothing to do with that.

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