By Lisa Schlichtman
The director of the Missouri Department of Transportation drew a standing-room-only crowd last Friday when he addressed a meeting of the Highway 37/60 Corridor Coalition in Cassville.
Over 75 people, repre-senting area cities, counties, chambers, schools and businesses, filled the Barry County Courthouse's large downstairs courtroom to hear from Pete Rahn, the state's top transportation official.
While waiting for Rahn to arrive, the Coalition gathering heard from Presiding Commis-sioner Cherry Warren, Cassville Mayor Jim Craig, Rep. David Sater and Sen. Jack Goodman. All three men talked about the growth occurring in southwest Missouri and its effect on the transportation needs of the area.
Warren, who serves as chairman of the 37/60 Coalition, opened the meeting by giving a brief history of the organization and explaining its purpose.
"Our goal is to move 37/60 onto the five year STIP (State Transportation Improvement Plan) plan," Warren. "If we can get on it, that's the good news. The bad news is they don't have any money.
"That's the position we're in today," continued Warren. "We want to move our project up on the priority list, and it takes us all working together to make this project happen."
Sater spoke about the importance of working in conjunction with Arkansas officials to plan for transportation needs.
"Northwest Arkansas is really booming and land prices have escalated," Sater said. "People are moving up from Arkansas and building homes and we need to have the infrastructure in place to handle this growth.
"I hope this project happens soon," Sater said. "We need this infrastructure in place. I will work hard to try to keep this county viable and work with controlled growth."
Goodman also voiced his support for the Highway 37/60 project.
"I have two top priorities in my district," said Goodman, "and this is one of them."
The Coalition group also heard from Jeff Hawkins, regional planning director out of northwest Arkansas, and from Becky Balz, new District 7 engineer.
Hawkins updated the Coalition on the status of plans to four-lane Highway 62 in Arkansas. According to Hawkins, the environmental assessment on the project is underway and should be completed in the next few months.
"It's in our TIP and $21 million has been earmarked for the project," Hawkins said.
Based on that level of funding, the highway should be four-laned from Avoca to Highway 127 just east of Garfield, Ark. Eventually, the plan is to four-lane the road to the Missouri state line.
Balz told the crowd that MoDOT was in the process of hiring a consultant to do the design study on the Highway 37/60 Corridor project.
"This week, we started work on an origin-destination study and will be looking at collecting additional traffic information," said Balz. "We are making progress in the right direction."
Rahn, making his first appearance in Barry County since taking over as MoDOT's new director in 2004, said he was learning about the transportation needs of Missouri by visiting as many communities as he could. In the last year and a half, Rahn said he had been to 173 different cities. His trip to Cassville made 174.
Rahn explained that Missouri was benefitting from Amendment 3 funding, which is currently providing $1.4 billion for highway construction projects across the state.
"In 2010, that funding will drop to $800 million, and in 2011, it drops to $600 million," Rahn said. "At that point, we'll be looking at a program that will be essentially preservation rather than new construction.
"It's pretty clear to me that it's going to take additional investment by Missouri to continue to address our needs," Rahn said.
"The good news is we're making excellent use of the resources we've been provided and completing projects faster than ever," Rahn said.
He added that the work along Highway 37 between Monett and Cassville is a direct result of an infusion of funding provided by Amendment 3.
Seligman resident Neal Stanley asked Rahn about the need for highway design studies.
"It seems to me a road is studied to death. Why not just build it?" Stanley asked.
"To utilize federal funds, studies are required," explained Rahn. "The study on Highway 37/60 is $2.5 million, but it has to be done. This is a first step that has to occur, it's a necessary step.
"The study could position the project very well if an influx of money should occur," said Rahn.
On Monday, Warren said he felt positive about the future of the Highway 37/60 Corridor project.
"I'm not too disappointed about where we are right now," said Warren. "We got the study started, and our next hurdle is to get it on the STIP plan."
Last week, Warren participated in a state-wide exercise where representatives from all 10 MoDOT districts evaluated all the proposed highway improvement projects in the state and then prioritized them. A summary of how each district group voted will be presented at another meeting in Jefferson City on May 18, which Warren will attend. The recommendations will then be passed onto the Missouri Highway Commission.
According to Warren, the 37/60 project was the top project in District 7.
"You've got to be optimistic," said Warren. "I have a feeling something (funding wise) will happen between 2006 and 2011, and let's be ready when it happens."