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Contractors hope for early highway-bill passage

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Construction on Missouri's highways will continue this summer as scheduled if Congress can pass a new highway funding bill in time, said Anita Randolph, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Randolph and others in the road construction business are encouraged by the passage of a new highway bill in the Senate. In September of 1997, the previous bill, called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, expired, and a six-month extension was passed. ISTEA had been in effect from 1991 to 1997.

The new bill, as passed in the Senate, would expire in 2003. That bill passed March 12. It will give Missouri $3.6 billion over the next six years for highway construction, said Sen. Kit Bond. The Senate bill increases Missouri's share of highway funds from 80 cents to 92 cents on every dollar that Missourians pay to the highway trust fund through gas taxes, Bond said.

Bond also authored language that gives Missouri an additional $15 million for bridge improvement. The senator also authored language in the bill that would allow Missouri to have an edge in the competition among states for the more than $600 million in special bridge funds over the six-year life of the bill.

The House of Representatives has yet to pass its version of the bill, which will then go to conference before it reaches the president's desk. Dan Wadlington, a spokesman for Blunt, said work had already begun on the bill.

Bond said roads were vital to economic development, and good roads "were a matter of life and death in Missouri."

"I am very pleased with the outcome of the highway bill in the Senate," Bond said.

Randolph said the Missouri Department of Transportation considers the passing of the Senate bill, "very positive.

"We're really excited and delighted that this has passed in the Senate, and it looks very favorable for getting something through the House, as well," she said.

The fact that a new federal law to appropriate the money is not in place now means that the department will not be letting new contracts after April 1, unless a bill is passed in time, Randolph said. As it looks now, the department should be "right up against the line," but will be able to continue letting contracts, Randolph said.

"It's not clear yet exactly how things will go or exactly what the time line will be, but it looks as if we will just squeak by," Randolph said.

Ideally, the department would be letting contracts now for work to be done this summer, Randolph said.

"Getting those things set up in late winter and spring is critical to seeing that construction takes place on the highways this summer. The majority of highway work is done in the summer. We work from frost to frost," Randolph said.

Getting a bill in place by early May is very important to the department, Randolph said.

"Dividing the federal highway money among the states is always contentious, and it is tough to get something that all 50 states can live with. However, we continue to hear positive things and are very encouraged by the bill's passing in the Senate," Randolph said.

For David Roling, of APAC Masters-Jackson Paving Co., the fact that the bill has passed the Senate is significant since state highway projects constitute about 55 percent of the company's business.

"If everything can be in place by May 1, we'll be all right, but the mere fact that there's been this delay in funding has affected the planning process. With the passing of this bill, that should start advancing forward," Roling said.

The concern about delay is twofold because of the recent rain, Roling said.

"For us it's funding first, then weather. The fact that there has been a problem with both lately has been distressing," Roling said.

Congress has a recess April 2-22 and Larry Burk, vice president of Burk Bridge, said he hopes a final version of the bill can be to President Bill Clinton by April 1, before the break.

Just about all of the work the bridge company does is affected by the availability of federal funds, Burk said.

Though the current situation has been tough, Burk said he remembers a period in the early 1980s when "the entire industry shut down for a few months."

"We might have had two or three lettings that entire year," Burk said.

INSET CAPTION:

'If everything can be in place by May 1, we'll be all right.'

David Roling

APAC Masters-Jackson[[In-content Ad]]

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