JEFFERSON CITY - Faced with complaints about delays in implementing a long-term highway-construction plan, Missouri's Highways Department plans to ask the legislature for power to borrow money so it can build roads more quickly.
As part of its request to the legislature, the department is promising to address complaints legislators have raised about how the department has been managing its affairs - including making the department more responsive to the public.
"We are changing the way we do business instead of bumbling mass amounts around," said Jim Coleman, public affairs coordinator for the Highway Department.
By improving its budgeting methods, focusing more on public needs and the best way to address them, the department will be more efficient, Coleman said.
"We're still going to provide the same level of service," Coleman said. "It's how to improve the process."
At the center of this issue is the department's 15-year plan, adopted in 1992 as part of its successful legislative campaign for a gas tax increase.
An audit by the legislature's Oversight Division charged that the department's 15-year construction plan did not correspond to goals set by the legislature and that the department amended the program without legislative approval.
Total expected construction costs by the department were greater than the projected revenues, according to the audit.
That finding was reinforced by an internal department review this month that found that at the current spending rate, the department will fall $4.2 billion short of the 15-year plan's goals, Coleman said.
"We were busy doing the work rather than working on the nuts and bolts," Coleman said.
Coleman said department representatives plan to ask the legislature for the authority to sell bonds to raise the money needed to finish projects promised in the 15-year plan.
The next session of the legislature begins in January.
The department will ask for the authority to issue bonds up to $500 million that will be repaid through gas taxes, said Steve Forsythe, public affairs coordinator for the Highway Department.
The bonds will be repaid by "user fees," which is the term the department uses to describe the gasoline tax you pay at the pump. "User fees" would not include road tolls, Forsythe said, after first checking with department officials.
A prepared statement by Highway Department Chief Engineer Joe Mickes said bonds would save Missourian motorists through reduced road user costs, reduce inflation costs, and allow the department to meet construction demands faster.
Mickes was unavailable for comment.
As part of the campaign for a bond issue, the department is proposing several changes in its operations to address recent criticisms.
The department will be setting up two or three customer service centers, which will take phone calls from Missourians to relate their needs and concerns to the department, said Jim Toft, the leader of a department task force reviewing their operations.
"The service centers will see what is needed and we're setting up a positive method for getting back to the customer," Toft said. "We think this will help us realize problems and respond to them better."
In addition, teams will be formed to shorten the time it takes to move a highway project from the design phase to the actual construction, Toft said.
The department is looking at new ways to determine budgets throughout the state, which will be linked with performance, Toft said.
In the past, the Highway and Transportation Department has received criticism for handling of funds.
The legislative staff audit charged the department had spent as much as $6 million from a gas tax for administrative purposes.
State Auditor Margaret Kelly's office also has criticized the department in previous audits.
"We have criticized the Highway Department's moving expenses and internal expenses," said Frank Ybarra, spokesman for the state auditor.
Highway Department Spokesman Coleman said the department realizes changes need to be made.
"If nothing changes, we will have no money," Coleman said. "We will be short."
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