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GUEST COMMENTARY: Expanding Missouri's highway, freight systems key for future development

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 | 2:06 p.m. CST

The Show-Me Institute recently published a case study by Jerome J. Day, available at showmeinstitute.org, that takes an expansive look at transportation infrastructure in Missouri from the perspectives of history, economics and engineering.

Day presents well-known examples of transportation investment leading to economic growth, including the Erie Canal, the First Transcontinental Railroad and the interstate highway system. These and other examples have historically been financed through public or private means, or through some combination of public and private funding.

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However, transportation investment in Missouri during the past few decades has been financed almost entirely by public entities. According to Day, Missouri could face a more prosperous future by considering other options, such as public-private partnerships.

Day envisions the possibility of a continuous urban corridor between St. Louis and Kansas City, which would expand past Missouri east through Ohio and become one of the nation’s primary urban corridors. In this model, a high-quality roadway connects major urban areas to one another with economic activity naturally springing up around, and supporting, the area between major cities.

In order for Missouri to regain its former status as the crossroads for the movement of people and goods across America, it needs to address the long-run congestion and capacity issues along Interstate 70. A multilevel plan is required to best address the long-term projected transportation needs of the future and to allow for economic growth in the heart of Missouri.

The current Highway 50 south of the Missouri River could be upgraded over time to interstate standards, as it already is near Jefferson City and for parts east of Kansas City. This, as envisioned by Day, would be I-70 South.

What is now I-70 could largely remain within its current footprint. The most important improvement would be to construct a new I-70 North including both a highway and railroad tracks for freight and passenger trains. This new highway would be an excellent train route and allow for economic growth in cities such as Mexico and Moberly.

A new train route north of the current I-70 would be ideally suited for maximum efficiency because of the flat and open nature of the land there. Day points out that, with improvements in railway technology, movement of freight by train is much less expensive and safer than moving freight by trucks, a common method today.

Day identifies two aspects of current plans by the Missouri Department of Transportation for I-70 that he thinks might limit opportunities for growth.

First, any plans to finance the improvement of I-70 primarily by relying on gasoline taxes will face funding difficulty in the future because technological advances in fuel efficiency and other possible changes will substantially reduce gasoline tax revenues.

It could be an even worse idea to move from using gasoline taxes for transportation infrastructure to using sales taxes. It would move funding even further from a user-pays model of inter-city travel to a plan where senior citizens who no longer drive would have to pay as much for highways as daily suburban commuters.

Day believes that Missouri needs to meet its future transportation investment demands by increasing its use of user fees and public-private partnerships. The user fees would enable a system in which those who use the road pay for it. Public-private partnerships could, in the long run, allow for the financing required to meet future demands by bringing the efficiency and resources of the private sector to the public sphere.

Of course, “user fees” is another way of saying “toll roads.” There is nothing to fear from that. Modern electronic tolling has eliminated the need for inconvenient — and sometimes dangerous — toll booths. A three-pronged expansion of I-70, financed privately and funded through tolling, is the preferred method for expanding our highway and our freight capacity.

The other concern, according to Day, is MoDOT’s current focus on truck-only lanes to increase the freight capacity of I-70.

Choosing to concentrate on trucking for freight movement ignores the demonstrated advantages in cost and efficiency of freight rail. Modern freight management techniques have substantially reduced delays in train yards, and the engineering advantages of steel-on-steel over rubber-on-asphalt are well-known. Day reports that railroads are capable of moving one ton of freight at the equivalent rate of 400 miles per gallon of fuel.

As another Show-Me Institute scholar, Randal O’Toole, has noted, freight rail has long been the least-subsidized major form of transportation in the United States. MoDOT’s plans for truck-only lanes would continue the subsidy advantages that America has long given the trucking industry. But why should the trucking industry be subsidized over other forms of transport, which might better fit Missouri’s ongoing needs?

Day does not envision a top-down imposition of his urban corridor plan. He intends his case study to start a discussion throughout Missouri, about the best ways Missourians can invest infrastructure dollars to achieve greater economic growth.

If we allow for the possibility of private investment, those infrastructure resources expand significantly. During the past decade, the Missouri Department of Transportation has proven itself to be a top-level transportation organization. Day hopes his ideas will become of part of their conversations, too.

David Stokes is a policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.


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