By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
The voluntary resignation Tuesday of Henry Hungerbeeler, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, was greeted with mixed emotions locally.
Hungerbeeler, in tendering his resignation, said the agency could benefit from new leadership.
He cited a recent report from an independent panel, the so-called "Blue Ribbon Panel," that said a management reorganization could improve MoDOT's credibility with the public. The resignation is effective June 1.
Hungerbeeler was named to the post in March 1999 by the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.
State Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who serves on the transportation oversight committee in the Senate, said Hungerbeeler's resignation is "an opportunity for new direction for the department."
"I don't want to be overly critical of Mr. Hungerbeeler," Nodler said. "He was well-intentioned and hardworking, and did do some good things.
"Nevertheless, a change in leadership can energize the department and refocus it in positive ways. Clearly, in our area, the Interstate 49 corridor has not been developed at a pace that is appropriate.
"New leadership could provide an opportunity to move this project in the right direction. We could complete the only unbuilt interstate highway in our state. I want to communicate to the new leadership the urgency of this project so that it gets the attention it requires."
Nodler said Hungerbeeler's intentions were good and "his purpose was good, but I am not sure he ever fully gained control of the department."
"He did work very well with our district engineer," he said.
Harold McCoy, director of public works for the city of Joplin, said Hungerbeeler "made a couple of mistakes" that created enemies in St. Louis and Kansas City.
"He tried to balance state funding with out-state interests against St. Louis and Kansas City," McCoy said. "That would have helped us, but he lost credibility with some people because of that.
"He was not a supporter of Route 249 (the Range Line bypass). We had a difference of opinion on that, and that's fine. We wish him luck."
Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said: "I think Mr. Hungerbeeler took the job in a particularly difficult period of time. Funding for the 15-year plan was not there. The state budget situation has not allowed for any additional highway funding.
"Frankly, there were a lot of issues where credibility was a factor. Mr. Hungerbeeler tried to re-establish that credibility and did some good in that area. A new director coming in may be able to capitalize on some of that restored credibility."
Congress is moving toward adoption of a new six-year transportation bill. Action on the bill should take place early next year. The Senate version of the bill contains about $1.4 billion for Missouri.
"That could really help the state complete these priority projects, including the Range Line bypass," O'Brian said. "With that money, a new director could capitalize on the more solid foundation that Mr. Hungerbeeler helped create."
Barry Orscheln of Moberly, chairman of the state transportation commission, said the commission will meet Thursday and Friday in Kansas City to figure out "where we go from here."
Orscheln said the commission will probably use the same procedure it used when it selected Hungerbeeler for the job in March 1999. A search firm was hired to screen and interview candidates. The procedure took several months.
Orscheln emphasized that Hungerbeeler's resignation was voluntary.
He said the department is one of the most cost-effective state transportation departments in the nation.
"We are No. 1 in the country for accurate estimating of construction costs," he said. "We have completed millions of dollars of construction right on target. Henry has done a lot.
"Unfortunately, there are some critics out there who aren't satisfied."
Hungerbeeler joined MoDOT after a 30-year career in the Air Force. He oversees an agency of more than 6,000 employees who plan, build and maintain the state's transportation system.
By Wally Kennedy