There's definitely something culturally wrong within the Missouri Department of Transportation. We've discussed this here before, whether it is their push for more money, their subsequent blackmail of the electorate and their ongoing tantrum, the agency seems to have the entitled mentality of a deposed princess.
How can the public not not love me? I've given them everything they need to be happy, yet they refuse to help themselves. I'm not responsible for what becomes of them. Let them eat cake!
Another exhibit in this saga surfaced last month when I was on vacation. St. Louis Public Radio held the typical discussion on infrastructure where you have members of the Infrastructure Cult gather to lament a lack of funding with no thought given to counterpoint (the assertion of floods of more money being needed so obvious as to not warrant a rebuttal).
The conversation started in the typical way: some large sounding statistics painting a picture of thoughtfulness and competence amid the herculean task of maintaining a system of such complexity:
“In Missouri, we have 10,000 bridges and 30,000 miles of road, and they’re continually needing work,” said Bill Schnell, assistant district engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Most of the highway system was built in the 1950s-60s, Schnell said. Bridges are typically meant to last about 75 years, and many in St. Louis are nearing the end of their run.
Loads are heavier now, and drivers’ needs are different. High car usage and the advent of semi-trucks put stress on roads that had not been planned to take it. The addition of bike and pedestrian lanes involves further unplanned alteration. And many of those changes must be paid for locally.
“We actually have less revenue today than we did 20 years ago,” Schnell said. “Funding transportation on a gas tax, which worked for generations—today, it’s not a sustainable thing.” Cars using more efficient fuels, electric vehicles, and alternative transportation all increase wear on roadways without funding their eventual repair.
Then comes the revealing comment, which I think accurately represents the mindset of the MoDOT management:
Ultimately, Schnell said, the mechanisms of funding these long-term investments are dependent on legislation, not administration. “It’s MoDOT’s job to figure out what the transportation needs are and how much those cost. It’s really up to the legislature and the people to figure out how to pay for it.”
In other words, we'll tell you what's needed. Your job is to find a way to pay for it. We're doing our job, now you do yours.
Let me restate this using other situations where you have a superior (legislature) and subordinate (DOT) relationship.
Pentagon General to the U.S. Congress: I'll tell you what wars we need to fight, you just find a way to pay for them.
Employee to Employer: I'm going to tell you how much of a salary increase I need. It's up to you to figure out how to pay for that.
My Daughter to Me: Dad, I'm going to tell you the toys, clothes and treats I need. Your job is to provide them.
Yet there was nobody in the echo chamber of that show that challenged this crazy MoDOT assertion. It's NOT -- ABSOLUTELY NOT -- the role of MoDOT to design the transportation as they see it, using a narrow mandate that ignores not only the economic, social and cultural impacts of their approach but the crushing financial feedback they are getting that their approach does not work. MoDOT is the servant, not the master.
And as a servant, it is their responsibility to do what they can with the resources they have. If MoDOT had not spent the last two generations building everything they could whenever they could with whatever revenue stream they could get their hands on -- if they had actually pondered whether or not they would actually have resources to maintain everything they were building instead of just assuming, in their narrow view of the world, that all new transportation projects are a blessing to the population -- they would be in a much different position today.
We can't go back, but we can stop this insanity now. MoDOT has overbuilt. Their system -- like Iowa's to the north -- will contract, whether they do it thoughtfully or continue with the kicking and screaming. If I were in a position to make such decisions, I would work to bring about a cultural shift at MoDOT, starting by replacing all of their senior management with leadership that appreciates the current situation and the role the agency played in enabling it.
Until then, I would not give them another dime. They've given no indication that they know what to do with it.