Missouri transportation: Miles of innovation as funding problems loom

There were two strong themes during a recent meeting of Missouri’s transportation stakeholders in Jefferson City.

For half of the 2015 Missouri Chamber Conference on Transportation, speakers touted Missouri-driven advances that are helping spur transportation innovation.

But on the other hand, several other presenters warned of the state’s upcoming funding shortfall, creating the question of whether Missouri will be able to capitalize on many of these exciting new developments.

Among the innovators at the conference were Dr. Sooduck Hwang, who is working at the Missouri University of Science and Technology to create advanced concrete for roadways. Also from the university was Angela Rolufs, who is helping lead an autonomous driving trial at Ft. Leonard Wood. The project aims to use self-driving vehicles to help bring soldiers to dining halls; deliver ammunition and meals to the fort’s ranges; and transport outside visitors to graduation ceremonies.

While all the projects are still proposals at this point, Rolufs said the autonomous driving technology could be a big cost saver for the fort—as well as inform efforts to expand consumer-level autonomous driving products.

“The goal is to do something useful to the operation that also demonstrates the technology,” Rolufs said.

Other presenters included Kevin Eisenbeis with Burns & McDonnell who discussed new bridge building techniques that are cutting construction times by weeks and months. In addition, Kurt Rotering with Iteris detailed new technology to bring together all the data being gathered by various transportation systems into a single stream that can inform community leaders and increase efficiency.

Speakers Ryan Nonnemaker with GoRail, Jeff Davis with BNSF Railway, Tom Crawford with the Missouri Trucking Association and Cheryl Ball with MoDOT showcased advances in rail transportation and trucking. They also discussed recent work to better facilitate freight traffic in Missouri.

Other panelists highlighted possible opportunities coming to Missouri as world trade corridors adjust to an expansion of the Panama Canal that opens in 2016.

“If we are shifting trade lanes, that may mean that we need to shift where our investments go,” said Sara Clark with TranSystems during the Panama Canal panel discussion.

Yet the prospect of making any near-term investments in Missouri’s transportation system has faded in the wake of voters’ rejection of a sales tax to fund transportation last year.

Now, the state is less than two years from seeing a sharp decline in resources that will cause much of Missouri’s transportation system to fall into decline.

Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways & Transportation Commission, described Missouri’s upcoming 325 System—a term coined to reflect the department’s $325 million 2017 budget.

Miller said the state needs $485 million to simply maintain the state’s current transportation assets. The $160 million shortfall expected in two years means Missouri will only be able to keep 8,000 of the state’s 34,000 miles of roads in good condition.

The rest will only see basic maintenance and drivers across the state—including those living in dense urban areas—can expect to see deteriorating, bumpy road conditions. Miller said the funding shortfall could eventually lead to the state closing as many as 90 bridges.

For Missouri to take advantage of the innovations happening in transportation, Miller said the state would need innovative thinking about transportation funding.

“There are great things on the horizon if we have the possibility to pursue them,” he said. “But everything that we have to look forward in the future depends on our willingness as a state to invest in transportation.”

Other speakers agreed that transportation funding must become an urgent, statewide discussion.

“We need to think outside the big grey building,” said Sen. Doug Libla, R-Popular Bluff, referring to the need to expand the discussion beyond the state capitol to communities across the state.

But even as the lack of funding threatens to stymie transportation progress in Missouri, there are still bright spots. The day’s keynote speaker was Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, director of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Lambert airport is nearing an agreement to create a special facility that will be able to pre-clear shipments to Mexico. The airport is also working to establish the capability to ship breeder-quality livestock to foreign countries. Both of these have the potential to bring shipping and logistics growth to St. Louis and elsewhere in Missouri.

“I think it will give us an edge in jumpstarting the international cargo,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

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The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry understands that the quality of life in our state depends on quality jobs for Missourians. To that end, we have one simple mission: to protect and advance Missouri business.

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