VANDALIA – A hoped-for federal grant to widen Hwy. 54 went to other projects in 2019, but supporters of the project committed at a meeting the week before last to keep trying to make it happen.
The issue was discussed at a meeting of the Better 54 Coalition, a group of elected officials advocating for the project, on Thursday, Nov. 21.
The “BUILD” grant would have gone to adding a third lane to 54 between the intersection of 54 and U.S. Route 19 in Ralls County and the intersection between 54 and 61 in Bowling Green. Backers hope that a conversion to what they call a “shared four lane” will boost the road’s capacity and spur economic development. The group would ultimately like to widen the road all the way from Mexico, Mo., to Pittsfield, Ill., providing a stronger link between Interstate 70 in Missouri and Interstate 72 in Illinois.
A 2018 application to draw on the same pot of federal infrastructure money was also denied. Members of the coalition emphasize that they are pursuing a long-term strategy, improving their application and submitting again. The organization’s 2019 application estimated a cost of $25 million for the first leg of the expansion.
“We keep being told — just keep applying,” Steve Hobbs, Audrain County Presiding Commissioner said.
The fate of the $900 million given out this year was announced in November. In Missouri, two projects were funded: $13.5 million for transportation infrastructure around a Sullivan County reservoir and $21 million for a variety of transportation projects in downtown Springfield.
“They’ve been working on that for [something] like 20 years, and they were so excited,” Hobbs said about the reservoir project. “I couldn’t help but be happy for them.”
State Rep: Medicaid expansion push will be hard to beat
A ballot measure expanding Medicaid in Missouri would be hard to beat at the ballot box State Rep Kent Haden, R-Mexico, said at the Thursday meeting. Haden represents the 43rd District, which is centered on Mexico and includes Vandalia.
“This is an opinion., but I think they will get it [on the ballot], and I think it will be very, very difficult to get the information out there to defeat it,” Haden said.
Haden, a skeptic of the proposal, said it was relevant to the group because the expense of expansion could crowd out future state-level infrastructure spending.
“If we’re going to do something [on infrastructure] we’d better do it this year. If we pass extended Medicaid, we don’t have money for anything else,” Haden said.
Most of the money for expanding Medicaid would come from the federal government, Missouri providing a 10 percent match.
A February 2019 study produced by the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University calculated a range of costs of expansion for the state. Given the savings associated with the expansion — for instance, some of the new enrollees would be moved from other state programs — the study concluded the net cost would be around zero with a cost of around $47 million a year in the worst-case scenario.
Whatever the cost of expansion, Missouri’s Medicaid program will remain the biggest item on the state’s budget. The state was slated to spend $2.28 billion from general revenue on Medicaid in 2018.
A Medicaid expansion was a part of the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010. A campaign to put the issue on the ballot was launched in September. Supporters estimate the expansion would provide insurance to 200,000 low-income Missourians. It’s backed by a coalition including the Missouri Hospital Association, which argues the expansion will help stanch the closure of rural hospitals.
Roundabout due 2022 or 2023
Work on a roundabout at “Basinger’s Corner” at the intersection of 54 and 19 will probably take place in the summer of 2022 or 2023, a MoDOT representative said at the Nov. 21 meeting.
A few factors had contributed to a delay in the project, which had initially been slated to take place the year after the completion of the roundabout at “Scott’s Corner” outside Community R-VI school, according to MoDOT area engineer Brian Untiedt. These included engineering complexities around a gas line running alongside the project, some complexities around the right-of-way and limited funding for safety improvement projects like the roundabout.
He emphasized, however, that MoDOT was still committed to the project.
“We still feel like there’s a way to get this project done. It might not be perfect, and we might get a few people mad, but we’re trying to squeeze it in there,” Untiedt said.