Missouri lawmakers warn lack of confidence in MoDOT could stall funding for major projects

During a confirmation hearing for members of the Highways and Transportation Commission, appointees promise to improve communication with lawmakers

By: - February 1, 2023 3:11 pm

Warren Erdman of Kansas City, left, a nominee for the Highways and Transportation Commission, listens as Sen. Greg Razer introduces him Wednesday to the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

The state Senate’s top leader delivered a stern warning Wednesday to the governor’s nominees for the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, saying lawmakers have “no confidence” in the transportation department’s leadership and that could stall plans for major highway investments.

The warning came during the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee hearing for Brian Treece, a former Columbia mayor, and Warren Erdman, a top executive of Kansas City Southern railroad. 

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican who is also chairman of the committee, said the fate of Gov. Mike Parson’s request for nearly $1 billion for improvements to Interstate 70 is at stake in their nominations.

“I would hate for an uncommunicative and bloated bureaucracy to be the thing that stands in the way of the people of Missouri seeing significant successes for I-70 and I-44,” Rowden said.

Erdman, responding to Rowden, said he will retire soon from the railroad and put his focus on improving the department’s image. He said he has no loyalties to any person or any policy put in place prior to his appointment.

“I will do my dead-level best to be an ombudsman for members of the General Assembly, with open lines of communication, and I expect the same from the staff and the management at MoDOT,” Erdman said.

The Senate is under a strict deadline to confirm the nominations made by Parson last fall. While no objections were raised in the committee, which voted to confirm Treece and Erdman along with four other appointees, any delay at this point could mean they can never be commission members.

Under the state constitution, appointments made while lawmakers are not in session must be confirmed within 30 days of the opening of the legislative session. If either is not confirmed, and Parson does not withdraw the nomination, they cannot be appointed to the commission in the future.

It was uncertain as late as Tuesday morning whether Treece and Erdman would even get a hearing. They were listed in the initial agenda, then removed, then added back at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.

Perhaps the biggest issue between legislators and MoDOT is an unresolved lawsuit over pay rates for department employees. Filed in December 2021, the lawsuit claims the commission has the right to spend more on payroll than approved by lawmakers, claiming constitutional language that the road fund “stands appropriated without legislative action” gives it that authority.

In a letter to the highways commission sent in January 2022, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin and five other GOP senators demanded that MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna either resign or be fired. O’Laughlin is now Senate Majority Leader, the second highest-ranking position in the chamber after Rowden..

“It is no secret that there are challenges and there are folks who have serious concerns about the current state of MoDOT,” Rowden said during the hearing.

During the hearing, O’Laughlin, who also serves as vice chair of the committee, said little and raised no objections to voting on Treece and Erdman along with the other nominees.The nominations will now go to the full Senate for a vote on Thursday.  

The commission’s pay raise plan is intended to stem a growing exodus of experienced workers in the department’s 5,000-person workforce. The commission approved a “market adjustment” plan. The goal was to get 65% or more of MODOT employees at or above the midpoint in the pay range for their job.

From front-line maintenance employees who plow snow and fix potholes to engineers who oversee complex construction projects, MODOT lost enough experienced employees to lower the median tenure from 11.3 years to 8.3 years between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2022.

Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker heard arguments in the lawsuit on Feb. 10, 2022, but has not issued a ruling. 

Brian Treece of Columbia, left, a nominee for the Highways and Transportation Commission, listens as Sen. Caleb Rowden introduces him Wednesday to the Senate Gubernatorial Appointments Committee (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

To smooth relations as they seek confirmation, both Treece and Erdman have met with most, if not all, members of the Senate and each has long-term relationships with many. 

Treece, an executive with EquipmentShare in Columbia, was a lobbyist for more than 25 years. Erdman, prior to his employment with the railroad, was chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Kit Bond.

Parson is seeking $859 million from lawmakers for a project to add lanes to I-70 in three congested areas near Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. It is the first installment on a plan to widen the interstate highway to three lanes in each direction, estimated to cost $2.7 billion overall.

He is also asking lawmakers to add $379 million to the general state road program, plus $35 million for railroad crossing safety improvements.

Treece emphasized the importance of collaboration between MoDOT and local governments, noting that cooperation helped push up a project to build a new bridge over the Missouri River and a new terminal at Columbia Regional Airport.

“I hope that collaboration can encourage other communities to accelerate their investment in their priorities,” Treece said.

Committee members kept returning to their frustration with MoDOT during the hearing.

“We need commissioners who are going to hold the department accountable,” said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.

Erdman promised to make that his top priority.

“I intend to be a very aggressive overseer of MoDOT,” he said, “and address some of the communication issues that have come to my attention.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.