If a major snow storm blankets Missouri, plowing every roadway will be tough sledding, the head of the state transportation department says.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, which has been downsized in recent years, has been unable to retain enough workers, so a large winter storm will pose serious challenges, Patrick McKenna, the department’s director, told lawmakers at a state budget hearing last week.

“We were about 500 people below where we needed to be in terms of being able to handle a statewide storm coming into this season,” McKenna said, adding that several hundred employees more would have needed to be trained how to snowplow. “We have had winter conditions throughout the state (recently), but they haven’t blanketed the entire state. We were very fortunate that they didn’t. We would have been pretty challenged meeting the service needs of the public.”

In an interview, McKenna explained he didn’t think the situation was an “absolute crisis,” but such an event could lead to an inconsistent response from the department.

“We could end up with a level of service that doesn’t meet the expectations of the citizens of the state,” he said, adding that could mean not plowing at night. McKenna pointed to last winter’s ice storm, which caused more than 1,500 car crashes statewide in one December weekend. At current staffing levels, that would have posed a challenge to the department.

“Had that happened three weeks ago,” he said, “we would have had some trouble with it.”

If the department doesn’t receive additional funding, the state’s ability to respond will deteriorate next winter, McKenna said.

“If nothing changes,” he said, “it will be slightly worse next year.”

Parker Briden, Gov. Eric Greitens’ spokesman, did not return a request for comment about McKenna’s testimony. Greitens was expected to release his budget Monday. McKenna said the department had been trying to beef up its staffing for winter since this past June, but it still fell short.

One obstacle is the level of pay, he said. The department pays its snowplow drivers, who need a commercial license, about $14-16 an hour, but the same drivers can pull in $4-6 more an hour working for, say, a utility company, he said.

“We need qualified people, and we need to pay them based on market conditions,” McKenna said. “They’re in demand. They’re getting paid more in other industries.”

Adding to the difficulty of a response to a large storm would be the limited number of maintenance facilities with snowplows.

Currently, there are 160 facilities spread out over 114 counties so some counties only have one facility, meaning drivers have to drive longer distances to cover the area, McKenna said.

Beyond low levels of staffing, the department of transporation has a hard time generating revenue — the state’s gas tax is one of the lowest in the country — to pay to upgrade the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Earlier this month, a task force created by lawmakers recommended raising the gas tax to help cover maintenance needs.

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