Mexico, MO: Backers of a long-desired expansion of U.S. Rte. 54 face a nagging problem: too many infrastructure projects around the state and across the county, chasing too few dollars.
Members of the Highway 54 Coalition met in the basement of the Audrain County courthouse in Mexico Thursday before last. At the meeting, they took stock of their options: money freed up by an infrastructure package being pushed by Missouri governor Mike Parson, another run at a federal grant they were denied in 2018 or some form of local funding, like a county-level sales tax.
How about all of the above? Attendees plan to look for opportunities to draw from different pots of money to make the project — which would, in its final form, build a four-lane highway from Pittsfield to Mexico — a reality.
“I think some day the state, in conjunction with the feds, will recognize that there is this little section of highway and if it were improved, would alleviate problems in other spots. They’re going to have the choice to go up 54, or to go down 19. And we want to [go up] 54. Pike County, I believe wants to [go up] 54. It is the right thing to do for this area to [go up] 54,” Audrain County Commissioner Steve Hobbs said.
“Maybe they will never recognize that, but I don’t know how in the hell you can look at a map and not say ‘what happened right here?’ We take this little bottleneck out, and look at the possibilities.”
IF YOU BUILD IT
Attendees at Thursday’s meeting decided to take another run at a BUILD grant, which is doled out each year by the U.S.l Department of Transportation.
In 2018, Pike and Audrain counties tried to get some of the $1.5 billion awarded to widen a 25-mile stretch of the road between Basinger Corner at the intersection of Rte. 54 and MO 19 between Vandalia and Mexico, at a cost of $25 million.
Their application sketched out two further steps in the plan that depended on other funding sources: phase two, which would have extended the project to Louisiana and Mexico for another $26 million and phase three, which would have built a bypass around Ladonia, Vandalia and Curryville and expanded the bypass at Mexico to four lanes for $22.8 million.
Officials at the Department of Transportation officially recommended their project, but in a very crowded field that proved insufficient. 250 applications were rated “highly recommended,” and only a fraction of those were actually funded, according to Mark Twain Council of Government Community Planner/Transportation Planner Samantha Diffenderfer, who took the lead in drafting the application.
At Thursday’s meeting, attendees reviewed their application and voted unanimously to give it another try.
The application deadline for the grant is July 15. Applicants can receive as much as $25 million.
There are some reasons to be optimistic: for instance, the project will presumably benefit from a requirement that half of the BUILD grants must go to rural projects. But the odds are still long. The amount of money the coalition will be bidding for has already shrunk: from $1.5 billion in 2018 to $900 million in the next funding round
SHOW ME THE MONEY
In the wake of a failed state-wide vote on an increased gas tax in 2018, Gov. Mike Parsons has advanced a new plan to fund infrastructure in Missouri, focusing on the state’s bridges.
A version of the plan was passed by the Missouri Senate in mid-April. It appropriates money for hundreds of bridge repairs already in MoDOT’s pipeline, releasing resources for projects like Rte. 53 widening.
“That’s the big thing about this — if this all happens, then money gets freed up around the state to do other projects,” said Tom Batenhorst, MoDOT’s Northeast District Design Engineer.
MoDOT’s Northeast District would receive $16 million displaced by the bridge plan to award between 2020 and 2024, should the plan go through as it currently stands, according to Batenhorst.
At a meeting on May 9, MoDOT will begin the process of drawing up two lists of projects: one to be covered by that $16 million, and another list, drawn up for planning purposes, of projects totaling about $78 million over the next ten years.
No two counties will get all of this money, and the $16 million wouldn’t be enough to pay for any of the phases of the project as laid out in the Coalition’s BUILD application. And none of the money is a sure thing: as passed by the Senate, the bridge funding will only come through if MoDOT wins a federal INFRA grant, and the bill still needs to pass the Missouri House.
“I guess you might say if the governor’s money goes away then this is for nothing — but not really. In my mind, it’s always good to know what those next priorities are in case you do get extra money,” Batenhorst said.
BY THEIR BOOTSTRAPS
As the county commissioners and regional planners sitting in the meeting mulled over their options, the question of local funding was raised.
“I think there’s a real conversation that has to happen of are we going to keep meeting and keep applying for stuff when we keep getting kicked back.
Do we try to raise some kind of funds locally through a sales tax for the counties affected?” Eastern District Pike County Commissioner Justin Sheppard asked.
“Yeah, this is a dream, but I think after a couple of rounds of this we’ll find out how real the dream is. I’ll be blunt: I hate to come to meetings every month with no realistic chance of doing what we want to get done. We have to explore every option,” Sheppard added.
This money — or incoming grant money — could be used to pay the counties’ side of a the MoDOT cost-sharing program, which makes $40 million available each year for approved projects if local government pays half the cost.
The cost of any meaningful progress on the plan makes the project a heavy lift for the counties and their taxpayers.
“We’re at 9 percent [in terms of sales tax]. The people aren’t going to vote [for an increase],” Pike County Presiding Commissioner Chris Gamm said.
Hobbs, of Audrain County, suggested to the group that it would have to keep applying and lobbying decision-makers, waiting for its opportunity.
“There’s no doubt there are issues, there’s no doubt that we’ll have to look at other [options] in the future. [But] in my mind, there’s no doubt that when we quit, we’re done,” Hobb said.