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Funding for the Missouri Department of Transportation has declined sharply, which has led to a new plan of cutbacks for the department. As KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports, this plan is not going down well with one Ozarks community.
[Sound: Traffic in downtown Willow Springs]
Reporter standup: “I’ve come down to Main Street in downtown Willow Springs. Willow Springs is about an hour and 15 minutes east of Springfield—it’s in south central Missouri. It looks like a quaint, typical Ozarks small town: you have old, brick buildings, some of which are ornately decorated. In just a minute here I’m going to walk down Main Street and walk into the Chevy dealership, where I’m scheduled to meet with several local residents who are very upset with MoDOT’s plan to do away with its District 9 Headquarters, which has been located in Willow Springs since the 1920s.”
“District 9 has been here since 1923,” says Wendell Bailey, a lifelong resident of Willow Springs who served in Congress during the Reagan years.
He owns the Chevy dealership, which has been turned into a staging ground for the fight to save District 9. Scattered around his office are homemade buttons and handwritten notes. He and other leaders took a church bus to Jefferson City for a May 4 hearing to protest MoDOT’s so-called “Bolder Five Year Plan.”
In the past month alone, they’ve held town hall meetings in Salem, Gainesville, Ava, Houston, Rolla, West Plains, Doniphan, Macon, and the list goes on. They’ve passed out comment forms and started a facebook page—and that’s just the beginning of their efforts.
If it’s approved by the Highway Commission tomorrow, MoDOT’s new plan will reduce the size of the department’s staff by 1,200 positions, sell more than 740 pieces of equipment, and shut down 135 facilities.
MoDOT would downsize from ten districts to seven—and that’s where Willow Springs residents have a problem. Their district would essentially be dissolved into a much larger district that would be run from Sikeston—which is nearly 200 miles away. So, they’ve been taking their four-pronged message to the Highway Commission.
“This is statewide significance. And the first point that we made is that the state will be affected when you try to cover this vast district from a remote location,” Bailey said.
A second point Bailey made was that the workers of District 9 have been voted numerous times by their MoDOT peers as the most productive district in the department.
Thirdly, Bailey argues that the process is wrong.
“They gave us 30 days to give our comments. And we feel like they were just going to push this through without getting a proper hearing on it,” he said.
His final point is that it would be unwise to put so many resources in Sikeston near the New Madrid Fault. In the event of a major earthquake, he said, MoDOT would have essentially no nearby resources to fill in if needed.
In the past election, this county voted overwhelmingly for a mandate of smaller government. I asked Bailey how he and others in this fiscally conservative area justify protesting the plan, which is clearly a case of government downsizing.
“The answer is a comprehensive long plan that reduces the size of their workforce. And we agree with that. We agree with the reduction in workforce. We agree with cutting of some facilities back that they don’t need. We agree with their sale of equipment that is surplus, that they don’t need. We agree with their plan tooth and toenail, until they get down to closing the district offices. We survived during World War II when they didn’t build a single highway for four years. Surely they can survive this economic downturn without closing district offices,” he said.
Bailey and others are recommending that instead of just having two districts for the entire southern portion of Missouri, MoDOT should mirror the Department of Conservation’s district map, which has three districts across the southern tier.
The mayor of Willow Springs is Jay Wagonner, a retired MoDOT highway designer and project manager.
“Our town is a transportation town. Columbia is known as a university town. Idaho is known for potatoes, Washington for apples…well, Willow Springs is just—we’ve got highways in our blood. That’s what we’re about,” he says.
He says kids growing up in this rural, high poverty area have, for generations, seen MoDOT engineers as their heroes—he knows, he says, because he was one of those kids. The average income in Howell County is 15,000 dollars. MoDOT is one of the major employers in this town, and the best paying.
Waggoner says when he worked as a planning manager for the Springfield district about ten years ago, MoDOT had a bad reputation among Missourians for not following through with its promises.
“The Commission wanted to change the image of MoDOT. So they began a process of becoming transparent. And that became a value of the organization. Now, though, with this process of the bolder plan, it was done behind closed doors with just a handful of people involved. It’s going back to the old days of MoDOT. Our representatives and senators were kept in the dark on the plan. The employees were not involved, the rank and file employees. The transporation partners at the regional planning commission were not involved. And the general public was not involved,” he said.
Waggoner says he’s asked for hard figures on just how much MoDOT stands to save by closing the district offices. So far, he says MoDOT has told him it will save 40,000 dollars a year on utilities, as well as the district engineer’s salary.
“They have another category of savings—it’s miscellaneous. It’s 184 million dollars,” he said.
That miscellaneous category of savings is the second largest section of MoDOT’s Bolder Five Year Plan, second only to savings made by cutting personnel.
The representative for Howell County is Republican Ward Franz, a state lawmaker who has repeatedly called for smaller government. He’s also told the Highway Commission that he’s against the MoDOT plan to close District 9.
“Voters made it very clear that they are wanting government to shrink, that it’s getting out of control. So I told [the Commission] that I’m okay with them making cuts. But I was wanting them to do it in a smart way, and not in a knee-jerk reaction that was going to have negative effects in the long run, and then we have to go back and actually look at the idea of getting these jobs back, or trying to get a tax increase down the road, which I’ve been very opposed to,” Franz said.
“It’s difficult. We recognize that it’s very painful for a lot of folks. But it is something that we do feel is necessary given that our funding is so limited now,” she said.
Sally Oxenhandler is a spokesperson for MoDOT in Jefferson City. She says the decision to do away with three district offices was based on a variety of factors.
“[MoDOT considered ] the geography of the area, the project workload, the age of the buildings, the services that could be provided by surrounding facilities. In some cases, we had to look at the leases and the deeds on the facilities,” she said.
She said the rest of the decision was based on the expertise of the staff members who drew up the proposal. She says it will be more efficient to put more people in fewer areas. And yes, she says, MoDOT has heard the voices and read the letters and email from many people in southern Missouri in the past few weeks.“We feel that we will still have a very significant presence in Willow Springs. Even without the district office there, we will still have about 70 to 80 employees located there,” she said.
Those employees will be primarily maintenance workers, she said.
Reporter Standup: “Before heading out of town, I thought I’d come back to downtown Willow Springs. Once again, I’m walking along Main Street in this small Ozarks town. And I’m told that it’s in one of these old buildings that the first two highway engineers were based, and that they had so few supplies that they had to use nail kegs to sit on—these old barrels. And locals say they will continue to do whatever it takes to get their message to the Highway Commission before MoDOT’s ‘Bolder Five-Year Plan’ is voted on and implemented. For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore in Willow Springs.”
ANCHOR TAG: Again, the Highway Commission is scheduled to vote on that plan Wednesday, June 8. It will listen to testimony before voting. For more information on MoDOT's plan, you can click here.