The Missouri Department of Transportation faces a rough road.
According to Pat McKenna, director of MoDOT, high turnover is creating a costly crisis for the department — to the tune of $30 million a year.
MoDOT turned over 13.27% of its employees in 2019, McKenna said. The department expects to lose more than 700 employees this year. Turnover is expensive because when an experienced worker leaves, the organization loses the worker’s skills, training and experience and has to pay the cost to train a replacement. Funding for salary and benefits for employees doesn’t draw the federal matching funds that help with transportation building and repair projects. Additionally, recruiting for new employees is becoming increasingly challenging. Anything that reduces turnover is a good investment, McKenna said.
Missouri has been underfunding road and bridge repairs for a long time. With nearly 34,000 miles of state highway and more than 10,000 state bridges, we boast the seventh-largest state highway system in the nation. Yet the Missouri fuel tax is among the lowest in the nation, and voters have rejected every call to raise it for two decades. The turnover crisis adds to the drain on resources already in short supply.
That is why a plan to reallocate resources to curb the problem is encouraging. A package of proposed raises to improve retention and hiring and an innovative proposal to shift benefit funding into salaries for some recruited from colleges offers hope and shows that the department is pursuing creative solutions.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson supports the raise packages to address the turnover issue and is looking for funding solutions to maintain and repair the state’s transportation infrastructure. Parson was able to borrow more than $300 million for road and bridge costs in 2019, gaining federal matching funds. Parson wants to draw money from the general fund again this year for infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges despite opposition from some within his party. Those projects would normally — and preferably — be funded by the fuel tax, but that continues to be in effect reduced by the declining purchasing power of our stagnant fuel tax rate.
It is good to see innovative approaches to stretching funding, given that the state has few other options. We applaud Parson's and McKenna’s efforts.
But such efforts are short-term solutions to ongoing problems. More than patches are needed.
Voters will eventually have to confront the declining power of the current fuel tax in order to provide lasting solutions.