MoDOT lobbying and MoDOT's opposition to Complete Streets in Missouri

Why MoDOT lobbying is not good for MoDOT or Missouri, and why political support for bicycling and walking is crucial to help move the state forward.

NHTSA lobbying vs MoDOT lobbying?
Legislators, the Governor, MoBikeFed, and other groups have strongly criticized MoDOT this year for its efforts to lobby on a number of transportation-related issues.

Yet in this recent article, we criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for keeping the lid on the results of important research--in short, for not lobbying.

So what is the difference?

In nutshell it is this: Agencies like NHTSA and MoDOT are charged with providing unbiased and accurate research and information about highway safety. MoDOT's own published goals are to be a source of "Accurate, Timely, Understandable & Proactive Transportation Information" and to be viewed as Missouri's transportation expert.

By the same token, they are taxpayer-funded agencies and, as such, have a duty to tread lightly when it comes to interfering in the democratic process.

An agency like MoDOT, which has an annual budget of about $2.5 billion and somewhere around 6000 employees, can simply overwhelm any citizen-supported action on any issue if they choose.

Let's examine how this dynamic has worked in three recent issues involving MoDOT lobbying:
If, on the issue of a proposed motorcycle helmet law, MoDOT had offered a comprehensive and well-supported summary of safety information, facts, and projected outcomes of the proposed law, that would have been well within their role.

That would have been accurate, timely, and relevant information of the sort expected from Missouri's transportation expert.

Instead, MoDOT chose to release a public opinion poll and go on a media blitz to lobby the Governor to veto the bill based on the fact that the poll showed many citizens opposed it.

As Governor Nixon said at that time, "Taxpayers are darn sick and tired of people spending public money to lobby public officials like that."

It's simply the difference between providing accurate research and information, which is MoDOT's role, and using public money to strongarm elected officials and pander to public opinion, which is not.
In fact, someone did supply exactly the kind of report MoDOT didn't produce--the Governor, in his veto letter for the legislation.

It's a strange kind of reversal--usually elected officials are out having media appearances and trolling for higher approval numbers in public opinion polls, while state agencies take the time to do detailed research a develop in depth understanding of issues.
And as our recent poll of MoBikeFed members and supporters showed, when MoDOT takes the low road, as they did in this case, it reduces their credibility with the public--exactly the opposite of what would happen if they simply provided complete, accurate, unbiased information, and then let the political process take its course.
The problem with MoDOT's approach is that in all issues like this, there is far more at stake than what MoDOT is focussed on--transportation and safety considerations. An agency like MoDOT has one narrow perspective, but our elected officials are charged with finding the balance among a wide variety of valid viewpoints on such issues--including the safety perspective, economic and cost considerations, and the important issues of individual choice and freedom from government control.
Citizen groups speaking up for those important rights and freedoms are most typically grass roots organizations with little funding--just the sort that a large, well-funded agency like MoDOT can all too easily squelch.
Earlier this year, MoDOT came under criticism for lobbying legislators for a primary seat belt law in Missouri.
Again, if MoDOT had simply provided accurate research and information on this issue, there would be no complaint.
The complaint came about because MoDOT sent a large number of employees, on the clock, to the state capitol to spend the day lobby legislators.
Of course, citizens' groups and private companies have lobby days at the capitol all the time. That's how our democracy works.
But--again by an overwhelming margin according to our recent poll--citizens feel that lobbying legislators is an inappropriate activity for a taxpayer funded agency like MoDOT.
MoDOT has a somewhat unusual setup for a state DOT. MoDOT is not directly controlled by the General Assembly or the Governor. Rather, it is run by a bi-partisan commission appointed by the Governor.
Missourians seem to like that. It keeps transportation decisions from being political.
But when MoDOT turns around and uses large numbers of its employees to lobby the legislature, that turns things around. Now MoDOT itself is acting as a political.
And that seems to make Missourians very, very uncomfortable.
(Ironically, MoDOT's lobbying of the legislature on this issue has actually had the opposite effect they intended--it's alienated legislators from their issue. The only chance for passing a primary seat belt law in Missouri probably involves MoDOT backing off and getting a wide variety of citizen groups involved in support of the issue. But that won't happen as long as MoDOT insists on putting itself front and center on the issue.)
The past two years, there has been strong support in the General Assembly, particularly in the House, for including the Complete Streets language in an omnibus transportation bill.
A large number of organizations have been working to support the bill.  But only one organization was openly working against the bill: MoDOT.
Yet time and again, when the decision was made to include or not include Complete Streets language, the final decision was to omit the language.
In 2009, it was very clear that MoDOT's lobbying kept the Complete Streets language--and a few other proposals opposed by MoDOT--out of the final transportation omnibus bill.  This was confirmed not only by the sequence of events--no other group was actively opposing the Complete Streets language--but was also later confirmed in private discussions with key players who made the decisions.
Does this hurt MoDOT in the end?
The prospect of a large, independent, well funded branch of government using its influence to sway decisions of elected officials who are supposed to represent the will of the people makes many nervous.
But even more important, in this and many issues, MoDOT wins the battle but loses the war:
What is unfortunate for MoDOT, is that many who support bicycling and walking, including the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, would more than likely support the new funding MoDOT will soon be seeking--if Complete Streets policies are in place.
But with MoDOT actively opposing Complete Streets through their lobbying efforts, how can we support any new funding for them?

Nobody supports better roads, streets, and bridges in Missouri more than those who bicycle, walk, and run regularly.

But can we support a MoDOT funding proposal that has absolutely no promise of doing anything to meet our legitimate needs and that may, in fact, make our state and communities more dangerous for walking and bicycling?
The answer must be no.
January 2010 update: In what can only be described as a sea change in the attitude and approach described above, MoDOT Chief Engineer Kevin Keith has engineered an agreement with bicycle and pedestrian groups to work towards Complete Streets policies internally while committing to complete a list of key bike/ped projects in the short term.
In that same meeting, MoDOT Governmental Relations staff confirmed that they had been lobbying in opposition to the Complete Streets bill.