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Be prepared to jump through hoops for statistics

If you want actual highway statistics to assess whether a quarter-cent sales tax is truly needed to improve the highways and intersections selected for the proposal, be ready to jump through a lot of hoops and pay a substantial sum to the state for the experience.

The Daily Journal began seeking the information the second week in March, starting with the Missouri Department of Transportation.

The department regularly generates such information on the highways and biways under their care, but they would not release the information to voters directly.

“Our lawyers tell us not to because people can use the information the wrong way,” one transportation official said. “When you pinpoint a location like that … it will come back to haunt us.

“We can talk in broad generalities, but we cannot give you that specific information. I have to have permission to release that information.”

He was quite polite and apologetic about the refusal and pointed out he was only following orders.

Another state official suggested people in the area should already have a “general” idea of the safety at the intersections in question, but said he would explore whether he could develop a statistic he could release. He said he really wanted to help.

He was considering reporting a percentage reduction in accidents that might be expected at the specific intersections in question if safety issues are addressed. However, ultimately, that statistic was not forthcoming either.

The reporter was advised to file a Sunshine Request to obtain the data, which was duly sent to the secretary of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

In a letter dated March 18, she advised the newspaper she had received the request and it was being reviewed. However, her letter arrived the same day with another letter, dated March 21, denying the request.

The reason cited by the March 21 letter for denying the request is that the information is “protected from disclosure by the Missouri Open Records Law, Section 610.021(14) RSMo.2000, and 23 U.S.C. 409, which protects from disclosure, ‘…reports, surveys, schedules, lists or data compiled or collected for the purpose of identifying, evaluation or planning the safety enhancement of potential accident sites, hazardous roadway conditions or railway-highway crossings.'”

That is a position Missouri Press Association Attorney Jean Manecke says her group considered challenging in the past.

“The federal statute was intended to prevent a citizen from using such information to litigate a case,” she explains. “But that is data the public needs to know, and the federal law was not intended to prevent that information from being made available for public review.”

In fact, individuals can still get the data, the March 21 letter goes on to explain, by seeking it from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which collects their data for “purposes other than 23 U.S.C. 409.”

Oh, and for the record, in this particular instance, the Daily Journal was not charged a fee for their request. “All charges associated with this request have been waived,” the letter stated.

The Missouri State Highwway Patrol was contacted. The reporter was bounced around a couple of times, but was finally sent to someone in the traffic division.

He said he was not really the person the reporter needed to talk to, but he explained the process and was very polite about doing so.

A trace report is run through a database maintained by the Patrol, into which each accident it has responded to is entered into the system, the man said. He also said the Missouri Department of Transportation has access to that data and uses it to generate all their reports.

He then transferred the reporter to the right person, Lilly LeBaugh. She estimated the cost for a report covering all the crossovers on U.S. 67 in St. Francois County, as well as the intersections of Routes V and W and of Route P and Highway 8 at between $30 and $40 for the last three years of data. Overall accident statistics for each route would also be included.

The Daily Journal has requested this report, which is expected to take about one and one-half weeks to process – but that’s likely not in time for most voters interested in the information for the April election.

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