JEFFERSON CITY — Interstate 70, the first interstate highway in Missouri, has become one of the state’s most vexing transportation challenges.
The highly traveled highway, which stretches from St. Louis to Kansas City and carries hundreds of thousands of vehicles per day, is in dire need of repair to sustain such high traffic, ensure driver safety and reduce highway congestion, state transportation officials acknowledge. Over the years, however, legislators and Missouri voters either have defeated or cast aside various proposals — including toll roads and tax increases — that seek to generate money to address the problem.
Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the amount of traffic that I-70 carries makes repairing and improving it crucial. One proposal on the table is to expand the interstate to an eight-lane superhighway all the way across the state and to have separate lanes for tractor-trailers.
The cost of adding four lanes to I-70, however, could be as much as $3.5 billion, Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Brendel said. MoDOT, which allocates $100 million a year for interstate maintenance, simply doesn’t have that kind of money. Legislative proposals supporting the project would have to ask Missouri voters to approve a temporary sales tax to cover the costs; however, an earlier proposal to do so failed.
"Ultimately, those decisions on how Missourians want to fund their transportation system, and at what level, will be determined by others,” Brendel said. “We can identify the needs of the system and what it would take to get there, but we don't have that authority.”
Those who work in Missouri's transportation industry say interstate highways should be a priority even as the state faces a $340 million shortfall this fiscal year and potentially severe budget cuts in fiscal 2010. Tom Crawford, president of the trucking industry's Missouri Motor Carriers Association, said proposals for fixing interstates are expensive but critical.
“Our infrastructure is very expensive,” Crawford said. “It's a challenge that most folks are not wanting to hit head-on because when you talk about the different funding options, none of them are positive. The bottom line is that it’s going to cost more money to put any kind of highway infrastructure together.”
Crawford said investing in transportation infrastructure could boost Missouri's faltering economy.
“It’s one of the investments that kind of underpins all of the economic activity that goes on," he said. “If you look at how our economy moves … that good, that service or whatever you’re buying is coming over the roads, either by truck, pickup or car.”
Harriett Richardson, a veteran truck driver of more than 15 years who is based in Kansas City, said that while infrastructure changes could help make Missouri's highways safer, it won’t help unless motorists are better educated about how truck drivers operate.
“We are responsible for the ‘little guys,’ anybody that’s smaller than we are. We’re responsible for them. People don't take into consideration that we can't stop like a car,” Richardson said.
With the start of the legislative session drawing near, state Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, has prefiled a bill that would allow MoDOT to establish toll roads to fund major transportation projects. The idea has been raised before but has gained little traction since Missouri voters decisively rejected the idea in 1992.
In 2007, the chairs of both the House and Senate transportation committees proposed sales tax increases to fund interstate expansion. The one-cent sales tax would have raised an estimated $7.3 billion over 10 years, enough to fund expansion of Interstates 70 and 44. The proposals would have required voter approval but neither even made it to their respective chambers for debate. A similar Senate bill in 2008 also stalled in committee.
Meanwhile, studies continue to conclude that the state needs to do something about Interstate 70. TRIP, a highway advocacy and research group based in Washington, D.C., said in a 2006 report that Interstate 70 must be expanded to at least three lanes in each direction by 2016. The report also calls for a total of $10 billion in repairs to Missouri's interstates, including I-70 and I-44, by 2016 to avoid further deterioration or traffic congestion.
Crawford, of the Missouri Motor Carriers Association, said safety is a major concern. When cars and larger commercial trucks share the same roadways, she said, the potential for severe accidents is greater because of the differences in stopping distance and the behaviors of both types of drivers. He said renovations such as truck-only lanes could reduce the danger.
“Any time you can get the two traffic patterns separated and limit their interaction, I think it’s going to improve safety on our highways overall,” he said.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, said legislators must figure out where the money to fix the interstates will come from. But first, he said, the government needs to reach out to voters. Toward that end, MoDOT officials and legislators have held focus groups around the state, with a special emphasis on I-70 and I-44.
“Before you can get to funding, you have to find out what people want their transportation system to look like for the next 20 years,” Stouffer said. “It's not just about I-70 and I-44. We’re looking at a transportation funding package.”