by Paul Flemming
The Missouri Department of Transportation's March contract letting is reduced, and future months' new contract lettings will be delayed as federal money for highway projects awaits congressional approval. The delays in awarding contracts could set some projects back a year and increase the ultimate cost.
"We have more projects ready than we have money," said Gary Ludlam, assistant district engineer for MoDOT's Springfield area district.
The six-year federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, first passed in 1991, expired in September 1997. Congress passed a six-month extension to the funding of ISTEA, but that appropriation will be gone in May without a set time for new legislation to be passed.
Larry Burk, vice president of Burk Bridge Co., said MoDOT contracts have been diminishing, and the continuing delays could affect all of 1998. "We could lose an entire construction season," Burk said.
The delay "is a nuisance and costly to contractors who would benefit by a steady flow of work," said George Innes, general manager of Springfield Ready-Mix.
"Knowing that our share of the federal transportation money will run out in March, to be responsible MoDOT must discontinue letting new contracts (as of the end of March) until Congress authorizes a new bill, and the funding tap is once again 'turned on,'" wrote Harry Price, head of MoDOT's Springfield district. "We can't keep setting up contracts without money to pay the contractors."
Ludlam said though there remains some money in the interim appropriation that ends in May, MoDOT has ongoing projects it funds with that money.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-7th) said further stopgap funding may come, but Ludlam said projects will still be delayed.
"We may need some short extension to keep the money coming to the states," Blunt said. "It's possible a resolution won't come until April or May."
"We have to go out to bids about five weeks before" a letting date, Ludlam said. "Even if they passed something tomorrow, it's already had an impact on our March letting."
"The bid-letting shutdown is likely to be short-lived, like a water tap that's being turned off temporarily," Price said in his Jan. 21 letter. "The federal government is in charge of the tap. When they turn it back on, we'll catch back up with our projects. No projects will be cut, but some projects may be delayed."
Among the projects affected by the legislative delay, according to Price's letter:
?Widening of Highway 14 in Nixa.
?Resurfacing on Interstate 44 west of Lebanon.
?Resurfacing on Highway 60 in Wright County.
?Bridge replacement on Highway 160 west of Willard.
Price said there are a number of MoDOT projects that are not affected by the situation, including all of Springfield's eighth-cent sales-tax-funded projects and right-of-way acquisition.
Blunt said the debate in Congress centers on the formula by which states share in the proceeds of fuel-tax revenues and how that money should be spent.
"Because of our gymnastics to balance the budget, we've done too much borrowing," Blunt said. Money collected from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel is deposited in the Highway Trust Fund. It can only be spent on transportation projects. If Congress does not authorize the expenditure of all that money, it remains on the books and technically is still in the highway fund.
Blunt said he hopes to ensure money collected for highway projects is spent on highway projects and also that Missouri gets its fair share of the tax revenue generated in the state.
In the 1991 ISTEA legislation, the formula to determine Missouri's take increased from 77 cents on the dollar to 90 cents on the dollar, said Dan Wadlington, spokesman for Blunt. "Just because you're authorized for 90 cents doesn't mean that's what you're going to get," Wadlington said.
In the actual appropriation of that money, Missouri's share increased from 75 cents to 84 cents on the dollar after the 1991 ISTEA was passed. Wadlington said Blunt hopes, in the debate of the new transportation bill, to increase Missouri's authorization up to 95 cents on each dollar it collects and to see that Congress actually appropriates that money.
If the formula is changed to Missouri's favor and those authorization figures are written into the new legislation, it would mean $165 million of new, additional money for the state, Wadlington said.
While the debate goes on, MoDOT is trying to deal with the situation.
"With a shutdown of the spring and early summer bid lettings (where we set up construction and project agreements with road contractors) work simply cannot start on time. Delaying contract agreements automatically means delaying the date a project will be built," Price said in his letter. "In essence, we'll lose the 1998 construction season."
"When dollars become available, we'll have a backlog on projects," Ludlam said. "That could drive up the costs of contracts" if a large number of projects going on at once mean area contractors are unable to handle the volume of work.
Adrianna Norris became a first-time business owner with the opening of Finley River Chiropractic; PaPPo’s Pizzeria & Pub launched its newest location; and Huey Magoo’s opened its second store in the Ozarks.