A while back I got a call from Fred Meinershagen. He had an idea he wanted to discuss. I’m always open to new ideas, especially new ideas that might become grist for my little columning mill, so I went to visit.
It turned out that Prof. Meinershagen, who is retired from MU, thinks the Missouri Department of Transportation ought to consider, when it gets around to fixing Interstate 70, running a bypass around to the south of Columbia. He’d extend that bypass all the way from the Kingdom City exit around Columbia, cross the river near Huntsdale and reconnect at the Overton exit.
I hadn’t heard that proposed before, so I called the MoDOT Customer Service Center and got a pleasant-sounding voice. She referred me to a Web site you might find educational, as I did. It’s “ImproveI70.com.”
The first thing I learned was that Prof. Meinershagen’s idea, or something like it, has already been considered and rejected. “The First Tier EIS concluded that relocating I-70 to the south of Columbia should not be considered because of unacceptable impacts to the environment and excessive travel distances,” I read. (An “EIS,” the Web site helpfully explains, is an environmental impact study.)
That conclusion struck me as reasonable. But as I worked my way through the documents online, I was also struck by the wealth of information and the paucity of action they reveal.
I hadn’t remembered — if I ever knew — that the DOT’s “I-70 Improvement Study” concluded in 2001, or that the local advisory committee last met in 2005. I had also forgotten, or never absorbed, a disturbing array of facts and figures.
We all do remember that the study proposed three possible alignments for the new and improved highway through Boone County. They were called the “Far North,” “Near North” and “Present” routes. The first was eliminated almost immediately, and, after a lot of discussion, the “Present” option was selected as most feasible and least destructive.
The plan was for eight lanes through Columbia, with six lanes in the rural areas to the east and west. The cost was estimated, in 2005, as $627,997,000 for the Boone County stretch, and $3.1 billion for the whole 199 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City.
The study also estimated that traffic through here will double by 2030. That’s on a highway designed in 1956 and built between 48 and 39 years ago. Its designed life span was 20 years.
The Improvement Study pointed out that no funding was available for the work. And when I first called Customer Service, the pleasant voice sounded puzzled by my question. “That project’s sort of on hold,” she said.
It was sort of on hold in 2001 and 2005, too. Meanwhile, the traffic multiplies, the trucks keep pounding and the roadway crumbles.
There are, of course, ideas for financing. The one that seems most plausible to me is Sen. Bill Stouffer’s proposal of a 1-cent sales tax for 10 years to rebuild both I-70 and I-44.
The question before the legislature, and before us citizens, is this: Are we going to do something or just wait until the highways fall apart completely?
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.