KANSAS CITY — Federal transportation officials have approved a proposal by Missouri officials to rebuild Interstate 70 across the state to include lanes reserved for trucks.
However, state officials said it will be difficult to find the necessary money to complete the $4 billion project.
"If we had funding today, we would start building I-70 with dedicated truck lanes," said Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. "That's a big if."
As a first step, Missouri plans to seek $200 million in federal stimulus money to build the truck lanes on 30 miles of Interstate 70 in Cooper and Saline counties, The Kansas City Star reported Wednesday. That segment would test the concept while the state tries to find funding for the larger project.
Missouri officials have spent 10 years studying how to improve the interstate, which runs from Kansas City to St. Louis. They contend the truck-only lanes would improve safety and reduce wear on the lanes used by other vehicles.
The new Interstate 70 design calls for trucks in the two inside lanes in each direction, with a grass median separating them from other vehicles. A concrete barrier would separate eastbound and westbound trucks. In some places, truck drivers would take a ramp into the general traffic lanes to leave the interstate. In other cases, trucks would use interchanges designed just for them.
Some critics have questioned whether the separate truck lanes are safe.
In public comments, the Sierra Club's Missouri Chapter argued that safety risks would continue if trucks were forced to use ramps to cross general use lanes to leave the interstate. MoDOT officials responded that the ramps connecting the truck lanes with the car lanes would be used only where trucks were a small percentage of the traffic.
Transportation officials in Missouri and the rest of the country are also waiting to see how Congress will fund transportation projects after the current program ends this year.
Rahn said it appeared Congress would approve extending the current transportation program, which would delay any decision about future highway funding.
State funding for the project also is questionable. There have been proposals for a penny sales tax to fund rebuilding Interstates 70 and 44, but it's unclear how much support those proposals have.
State Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doubted many people would support a tax increase in the current economy. But he said voters might approve the truck-only lanes if the state got federal stimulus money to build the first 30-mile segment.
Ed DeSoignie, executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association of the Greater Kansas City Area, said business and transportation interests were working to address the state funding issues.
"I don't think anybody has got any kind of magic answer to it," DeSoignie said. "You need money to fix these things. Where is the money going to come from?"