Feb 10, 2024

Rift between MoDOT, Missouri legislature renewed at transportation hearing

Posted Feb 10, 2024 1:00 PM
 The Missouri Department of Transportation headquarters in Jefferson City. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
The Missouri Department of Transportation headquarters in Jefferson City. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)


In an effort to change how the state’s transportation system is governed, a House committee discussed legislation Thursday that would amend how appointments to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission are made or whether to do away with the commission altogether.

The bills underscore the fraught relationship between legislators and the commission over a pay raise MoDOT sought to give employees in 2021 without legislative approval.

State Rep. Louis Riggs, a Republican from Hannibal, sponsored four pieces of legislation that were scheduled to be discussed in the House Transportation Accountability Committee on Thursday, although the committee only got through two of them.

The two bills Riggs sponsored that did receive a public hearing would either eliminate the commission or give the legislature the power to veto MoDOT’s spending plan, prompting pushback from some Riggs’ fellow House members.

“This bill, along with some others, are giving me severe heartburn,” said Rep. Joe Adams, a Democrat from University City. “If you want this piece of legislation, you need to go rework it and come up with a way of reforming transportation , not just highways in this state. I think that’s ridiculous.”

Some of Riggs’ other legislation targeting the Highways and Transportation Commission would make changes to how members of the commission are selected.

The six-member Highways and Transportation Commission governs the state’s Department of Transportation, and the efforts to overhaul MoDOT’s governance this year is a continuation of bad blood between the legislature and MoDOT.

A 2021 lawsuit about MoDOT paying employees higher wages without legislative appropriation after the state approved a 10-cent gas tax increase resulted in political infighting over transportation. MoDOT argued that it needed the pay raises to stymie a significant loss of personnel.

MoDOT is funded by appropriations controlled by the legislature and by funds generated by state gasoline and other transportation-related taxes that are not subject to legislative action. The proposed use of those funds prompted the dispute between legislators and the department.

While not all members of the House Transportation Accountability Committee agreed with the provisions of Riggs’ joint resolutions, there is some consensus among the members of the committee that some change is necessary.

“Most of us feel like MoDOT’s not very responsive to our constituents’ concerns,” said Rep. Don Mayhew, a Crocker Republican, the committee chair and sponsor of another bill proposing changes to the Transportation and Highways Commission. “No one is actually faulting MoDOT for the (employee) shortage because we all understand it. What we do see, however, is a seeming priority on things that aren’t necessary.”

Riggs’ frustration about transportation issues in his district was apparent in Thursday’s committee meeting, in which he said he wasn’t trying to target employees of the department.

“They do their jobs every day without fanfare or recognition,” Riggs said. “I do not have any issues personally with the members of the commission. My issues are with the nature of the process, its lack of accountability and consistency.”

Riggs advocated for having the department overseen directly by the legislature and doing away completely with the commission, in an effort to increase accountability in governing the department. The commission was not without its defenders, however.

“We’ve got to live with this system and we got to make it better, but destroying it is the total wrong answer,” Adams said.

The Missouri Transportation Commission was created by the legislature in 1921. Members are appointed by the governor and no more than three of the six members can be of one political party.

“The State Highway Commission, being bipartisan, submits that a highway program should be considered without regard to political affiliation or to party politics,” the commission states on its website.

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.