Don’t be surprised if Larry Craig is wearing a little bigger smile than normal.

Don’t be surprised if Larry Craig is wearing a little bigger smile than normal.

It’s not that Craig likes cold weather. What warms Craig’s heart is the fact that the U.S. 36 expansion project was undertaken sooner than later.

“In looking back at it, the timing on the U.S. 36 project was perfect,” said Craig, executive director of the U.S. Highway 36-Interstate 72 Corridor Transportation Development District. “My guess is if we had waited three or four years to start that process, it may have never gotten built. They were telling us back when we sat down in ’04 and started talking about the possibility of forming a transportation corporation or transportation development district that the additional 52 miles of construction wasn’t on their radar screen, and at best would be built in 2025 to 2035.”

In 2005, voters in the four-county area approved paying a half-cent sales tax for 15 years to cover roughly half the cost - $34 million - of expanding U.S. 36 to four lanes from just west of Hannibal to Macon. The Missouri Department of Transportation agreed to pay the remaining cost of the expansion, which was completed in July 2010.

Such a cost-share venture is no longer possible after Missouri transportation officials announced earlier this month they had suspended taking on such partnerships.

The state Highways and Transportation Commission’s decision to stop accepting new cost-share applications did not shock Craig.

“I’m really not surprised that they said they were not going to be able to do any more partnerships,” he said. “Unfortunately they’ve been forecasting that the past couple of years, that without any additional funding that type of program would probably have to go away because there is just not the funds to put up matching funds.”

Missouri's budget for road and bridge construction has fallen from about $1.3 billion several years ago to $685 million this year and is expected to be less than half that by 2017.

Under the cost-share program, the transportation department accelerated particular road projects if local governments agreed to cover part of the costs. Since 1998, the program has been used for 178 projects around the state.

The payoff of the local share is ahead of schedule.

“We’ve paid back a little over $15 million. We’re ahead of projections by $1.5 million, $1.6 million,” said Craig. “I am hopeful if consumers in Northeast Missouri shop in the four-county area, and we see positive sales tax receipts, that maybe we can have it paid off by the end of 2017. That’s not a guarantee. I see it as a possibility.”

An earlier-than-expected payoff would be more likely were it not for low interest rates.

“We could have probably had it paid off sooner if interest rates hadn’t gone down to zero,” said Craig. “We could only invest in FDIC insured CDs or government securities and you’re just not getting any kind of interest rate on CDs or securities. It’s not like it was before 2008 when we were able to invest in CDs and we were getting 3, 4 or 5 percent interest.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)