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Lack of trust in the MoDOT could block funding

The state Senate’s top leader issued a stark warning to gubernatorial candidates for Missouri’s Highways and Transportation Commission on Wednesday, saying lawmakers have “no faith” in the Department of Transportation’s leadership and that it could block the plans for major motorway investments.

The warning came during the Senate Gubernatorial Nominating Committee hearing for Brian Treece, a former Columbia mayor, and Warren Erdman, a senior executive at the Kansas City Southern Railroad.

Senate Pro Tem Chairman Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican who also serves as committee chair, said the fate of Gov. Mike Parson’s nearly $1 billion request for improvements to Interstate 70 is at stake in their nominations.

“I wouldn’t want an uncommunicative, bloated bureaucracy to be the thing keeping the people of Missouri from seeing significant successes for I-70 and I-44,” Rowden said.

Erdman, responding to Rowden, said he would retire from railroads soon and focus on improving the department’s image. He said he has no loyalty to any person or any policy put in place prior to his appointment.

“I will do my best to be an ombudsman for members of the General Assembly, with open lines of communication, and I expect the same from MoDOT staff and management,” Erdman said.

The Senate has a strict deadline to confirm the appointments Parson made last fall. While no objections were raised in the committee, which voted to confirm Treece and Erdman along with four other nominees, any delay at this point could mean they can never be committee members.

Under the state constitution, appointments made while lawmakers are not in session must be confirmed within 30 days of the opening of the legislative session. If either is not confirmed and Parson does not withdraw the nomination, they cannot be nominated to the committee in the future.

As of Tuesday morning, it was uncertain whether Treece and Erdman would get a hearing. They were listed on the initial agenda, then removed, then re-added at 3.30pm on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest issue between lawmakers and MoDOT is an unresolved lawsuit over pay rates for employees of the department. Filed in December 2021, the lawsuit says the commission has the right to spend more on payroll than lawmakers approved, arguing that constitutional language that the road fund “is appropriated without legislative action” gives it that authority.

In a letter to the Highways Commission sent in January 2022, Senator Cindy O’Laughlin and five other GOP senators called for MoDOT director Patrick McKenna to resign or be fired. O’Laughlin is now the Senate Majority Leader, the second highest office in the House after Rowden.

“It’s no secret that there are challenges and there are people who have serious concerns about the current state of the MoDOT,” Rowden said at the hearing.

During the hearing, O’Laughlin, who also serves as the commission’s deputy chair, said little and raised no objections to a vote on Treece and Erdman along with the other candidates. The nominations will now go to the full Senate for a vote today.

The commission’s pay hike plan is intended to stem a growing exodus of skilled workers from the department’s 5,000-strong workforce. The commission approved a “market adjustment” plan. The goal was to get 65 percent or more of MODOT employees at or above the midpoint of the salary range for their work.

From frontline maintenance workers clearing snow and fixing potholes to engineers overseeing complex construction projects, MODOT has lost enough experienced employees to lower its average tenure from 11.3 years to 8.3 years in the fiscal year 2018 and the 2022 fiscal year.

Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker heard arguments in the lawsuit on Feb. 10, 2022, but did not issue a ruling.

To smooth over relations as they seek confirmation, both Treece and Erdman have met with most, if not all, members of the Senate and each has long-term relationships with many.

Treece, an EquipmentShare executive in Columbia, has been a lobbyist for more than 25 years. Erdman, prior to his railroad employment, was chief of staff to US Senator Kit Bond.

Parson is seeking $859 million from lawmakers for a project to add lanes to I-70 in three congested areas near Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. It is the first installment of a plan to widen the interstate highway to three lanes in each direction, at an overall estimated cost of $2.7 billion.

It is also asking lawmakers to add $379 million to the overall state highway program, as well as $35 million for grade crossing safety improvements.

Treece emphasized the importance of collaboration between MoDOT and local governments, noting that the cooperation has helped advance a project to build a new bridge over the Missouri River and a new terminal at Columbia Regional Airport.

“I hope the collaboration can encourage other communities to accelerate their investments in their priorities,” Treece said.

Committee members kept returning to their frustration with the MoDOT during the hearing.

“We need commissioners who will hold the department accountable,” said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.

Erdman has promised to make it his top priority.

“I intend to be a very aggressive supervisor of the MoDOT,” he said, “and address some of the communication issues that have come to my attention.”

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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