The Southern Ozarks Alliance for Rural Development (SOAR) met recently to discuss expanding U.S. 63 to a four-lane highway from Thayer to Rolla. More than 40 people gathered on the ground floor of the Ferguson Building in downtown Willow Springs to discuss the project.
Despite the enthusiastic show of support from major players in the region, funding, or the lack thereof, cast a shadow on the meeting. The future of the project remains uncertain.
Described as the Mid-Missouri North/South Corridor, the proposed project would expand the highway from the Arkansas border north to Rolla. Municipal governments and business communities from Koshkonong, Licking, Houston and Willow Springs were well-represented. Two field agents from Congressman Jason Smith’s office were present. Representatives from both Howell-Oregon and Intercounty Electric Cooperatives were present. Large-scale contractors were there. County officials from both Howell and Texas counties attended.
Trent Courtney from South Central Ozarks Council of Governments (SCOCOG) was on hand and said, “I can’t even tell you how many years the widening of 63 has been the highest priority.”
The project was lauded as “something we have needed for decades” for both highway safety and economic development in the region. The soaring optimism came grinding to a halt when representatives from the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and Missouri Department of Transportation began to speak.
“I’m not going to come here and tell you the Commission will fund this because we’re not,” said Dustin Boatwright of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.
“This is the year,” SOAR president Wendell Bailey rebutted. He referred to the $1.5 billion federal infrastructure bill and additional funding MODOT will have from the recently enacted gas tax.
The funding for large-scale projects is not available, explained Commissioner Boatwright. MODOT and the commission have a list of unfunded needs that determine priorities in the state’s highway system, and these needs are divided into tiers.
A small portion of this ambitious project is on the state’s unfunded needs list. An expansion of U.S. 63 from Cabool north to Houston is on the list, but is years away from becoming a reality. Federal regulations require an environmental impact study which will cost $5-6 million and take three to five years. Only after the study is complete will it be time to fund actual work of only a small piece of the overall project up for discussion.
“The people in this room can make this happen,” Boatwright said, “if someone will put money on the table.”
He said large-scale projects like this are most successful when communities make a financial commitment and can partially fund needs from local resources. He cited examples from around the state in which communities used a tax, bond, or grant funding to put skin in the game and “knock down every obstacle.”
“Spend the money, remove the obstacles,” Boatwright said.
“$2 million would go a long way toward getting the environmental study started,” said one MoDOT official.
“I appreciate your honesty,” said Scott Long, the presiding commissioner from Texas County. Long is co-chairing the SOAR committee that is pushing for the U.S. 63 expansion.
“Let me know what to do next,” Long said to Boatwright.
“There’s an infinite number of ways to raise the money,” Boatwright responded.
Mike Pace, recently retired member of the highway commission, was also present at the meeting, and he offered an optimistic statement to close the meeting.
“Seek out those opportunities,” Pace said. “There are monies available. The responsibility to find it falls on each and every one of us who has a vested interest in this project.” HOWELL COUNTY NEWS