Overgrown is good

We see that the Mayor of Florissant has asked Governor Nixon to call a special legislative session to increase the gas tax by two pennies so the state will not miss out on hundreds of millions of federal-collected matching-fund tax dollars coming back to Missouri for road and bridge work.

The legislature muffed the chance to do that in the recent session. Some lawmakers, to be frank, will oppose any tax increase for any purpose and will exert efforts to block approval of one. Based on his past record, Governor Nixon is unlikely to call a special session unless legislative leaders guarantee the bill will pass.   Once burned, twice shy, and Nixon got burned a few years ago.

The Missouri Department of Transportation needs some strongly visual reminders of how bad things are in our road system. The public and the legislators need to be reminded of how tight things are and what their continued wandering in the world of smaller government is costing.

We were driving along one of our highways a few days ago when we saw a department crew mowing the roadside and the median. We thought, “Why is MODOT spending money on mowing when it needs every penny it can get to keep more of our roads from turning back to gravel and more of our bridges from turning to rust?” We have noticed several medians and roadsides have not been mowed and on our recent trip across Kansas and into Colorado we saw a lot of tall grass in miles of rights of way.

MODOT needs to cut the cutting.

Let the grass and the weed and the flowers and the brush grow. Let the roadsides and the medians get absurdly shaggy. Let those areas represent the financial shabbiness of our state transportation program. And when the public complains, be truthful. “We can’t afford to mow our rights of way because we need that money to fix potholes and a few bridge decks. The legislature could ease that problem but it won’t. If you’ll give me the name of your senator or representative, I’ll look up his/her phone number. I’m sure they’d be glad to hear your concerns.”

A good friend, “Cutter” Short, who once was in the road-building and repair business, has cautioned against such a practice. He points to Federal Highway Administration guidelines for “vegetation control” that say the reasons to mow are:

  • Keeping signs visible to drivers.  (Hey! We’re talking about grass in this discussion, not tomato plants, grape vines, kudzu, etc.)
  • Keeping road users–vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians–visible to drivers. (We are not suggestion that the grass be allowed to grow tall ON the roads, just beside them or in the medians).
  • Improving visibility of livestock and wildlife near the road. (It’s nice of the FHWA to want cows and deer to be able to watch cars and trucks go by.)
  • Helping pedestrians and bicyclists see motor vehicles. (Yes, they’re at least as important as the cows. See also point 2 above)
  • Keeping sidewalks and pedestrian paths clear and free from overhanging vegetation. (Grass doesn’t “overhang.”
  • Removing trees close to the roadway which could result in a severe crash if hit. (Again, we’re talking grass here.  It’s okay to remove some dangerous trees. We don’t know what to suggest about the rocky bluffs, though)
  • Improving winter road maintenance in snow and ice areas. (Never can tell when one of those big salt trucks with dozer blades on the front might get entangled in the roadside or median grass, you know.)
  • Helping drainage systems function as designed. (They’re designed to handle grass clippings when rain moves in right after a mowing?)
  • Preserving pavements through daylighting and root system control. (A little extra height on the grass isn’t going to keep daylight from arriving when the sun does.  But we will concede that grass roots can be dangerous for our highways.  Not as dangerous as a lack of funding to pay for pothole repair, though)
  • Controlling noxious weeds in accordance with local laws and ordinances. (Let’s call on our courts to sentence people convicted of DWI to a week of Musk Thistle-pulling.)

We can add another couple of plusses to letting the grass grow.  It will hide those unsightly but necessary cables in the median that are designed to stop crossover crashes.  In fact, if the grass is thick enough it might help retard the momentum of the wayward vehicle.  And, for those who look for reasons to punish the Department of Conservation, there is the argument that taller grass will give deer, opossums, armadillos, and turtles more places to hide until they can jump out and attack unsuspecting motorists.

But it’s worth the risk to let the grass grow to emphasize the need for the legislature to overcome its horrible fear that Missourians might have to fork over a few pennies to pay for something like roads and bridges. The danger, of course, is that our lawmakers might not do anything to increase funding for mowing and for concrete and steel work. Instead they might declare roadway grass is a new official state symbol. They’re pretty good at that sort of thing.   Essentials, sometimes, not so much.