JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — A New Hampshire transportation official who was instrumental in raising revenues for road and bridge repairs has been hired as the new director of the Missouri Department of Transportation as it faces a similar funding shortfall for its aging infrastructure.
McKenna will be arriving as transportation leaders are pushing for higher taxes to help Missouri's roads.
The transportation department has warned that by 2017, it will only have enough money to fully maintain one-quarter of the state's 33,887-mile highway system while the rest deteriorates. About 640 of the state's roughly 10,400 bridges already are in critical condition — a number that's projected to rise to 1,000 within five years.
There were "similar funding issues in New Hampshire, similar decades of insufficient funding to meet the basic needs of the infrastructure," McKenna told The Associated Press. "We've had some success in recent years raising some of that revenue against some pretty high odds."
New Hampshire passed a 4.2-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hike during the 2014 legislative session, its first increase since 1991. But that hasn't been enough to patch all of its problems with highway funding.
New Hampshire also tapped into the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which provides federal loans for large road projects at interest rates that are typically lower than those available through private capital markets. The state got a $784 million loan to reconstruct and widen 20 miles of Interstate 93 flowing into Manchester.
McKenna was widely praised by New Hampshire lawmakers for obtaining the federal loan, which helped free up state money for other highway projects. After New Hampshire's transportation commissioner stepped down late last year, McKenna took the lead in communicating with legislators through the budget process, at times bluntly conveying the need for enough revenues to avoid widespread layoffs at the department.
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission voted to hire McKenna during a closed meeting Wednesday. On Thursday, Commission Chairman Stephen Miller touted McKenna's "vision and experience."
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also praised McKenna as "an experienced professional who will bring strong leadership and vision."
Part of McKenna's job will be to function as a salesman for the department by explaining the state's transportation needs to a public that has been reluctant to raise taxes.
Missouri voters last year defeated a three-quarters cent sales tax that would have raised at least $540 million annually for transportation. Voters haven't approved a transportation tax increase since 1987, and the Legislature last acted on its own to increase fuel taxes in 1992.
Legislators are expected to consider several fuel tax hike options during the 2016 session. Anything raising the tax by more than a couple of cents a year would be required by the state constitution to be referred to the ballot.
Missouri House Transportation Committee Chairman Glen Kolkmeyer, who supports a fuel tax increase, said he hopes McKenna can help make the case for more transportation funding.
"I think MoDOT needs to have a better image, a better perception," said Kolkmeyer, R-Odessa. "I'm hoping that the new director can bring some positive PR to the department."
McKenna joined New Hampshire's transportation department in November 2010 as its finance director and has served as deputy commissioner for the past year and a half. He previously worked for the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation, a children and family services nonprofit and on the staff of the U.S. Senate, where he rose to become its chief financial officer.
Roberta Broeker, who had served as Missouri's interim transportation director since May, will return to her previous role as chief financial officer.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report from Concord, New Hampshire.
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