WHAT OTHERS SAY: Financing a plan to rebuild Interstate 70 with tolls is innovative, sound

Monday, November 14, 2011 | 4:39 p.m. CST; updated 5:07 p.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011

Missouri's road system has improved greatly in recent years thanks to heavy spending — up to $1.2 billion annually — by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Beginning this year, however, annual outlays will drop by half. Soon, the system will begin to deteriorate again.

The high-spending period was mainly financed with money from bond sales, but now much of the department's annual revenue has to go to debt service. Missouri's 17-cent gasoline tax regrettably remains one of the lowest of our eight border states.

Given the need to explore alternate ways to pay for new projects, MoDOT is right to trigger another debate on whether new work should be financed with tolls.

What MoDOT is planning, though, represents a different wrinkle on the subject.

It is proposing to rebuild Interstate 70 from St. Louis to Kansas City and finance the work with a toll, using a legal framework first devised in 2006 for the construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

That project never happened. But it was different because it would have used a private company to build the bridge and collect toll revenue.

Under current legal interpretations, the state road fund can't be used for projects involving tolls, chief engineer Dave Nichols said. But the Mississippi bridge plan would have been financed solely with toll money rather than road fund money, and the General Assembly gave the project its blessing.

MoDOT proposes to use a similar development agreement to rebuild I-70. The state would lease the freeway corridor to a private-sector company, which would build, operate, finance and maintain the roadway for up to 50 years.

The work would be financed solely by those who used the road. Money in the state road fund would be freed up for general work elsewhere around the state.

Rep. Charlie Denison, R-Springfield, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, reacted favorably toward the plan but noted that opponents carry considerable weight. He acknowledged that his own constituents had a dim view of toll roads and that the motor carriers' trade group would, as in the past, be adamantly against the idea.

MoDOT has taken dramatic steps to reduce its costs and stretch highway dollars. Earlier this year, the state highway commission approved a plan that would save $512 million over the next five years by cutting jobs, selling equipment and closing facilities.

Lawmakers, who will reconvene for the 2012 session in a couple of months, face an uninviting set of options. If legislators do nothing to boost revenue (such as asking voters to endorse a gasoline tax increase), the road system will begin to deteriorate and soon we will be back to the bad old days of pitted Missouri highways. The situation with I-70, Denison said, is "desperate."

Tolls can be overused, but they represent a legitimate financing method for certain projects. Missouri's de facto toll ban is counterproductive, and the innovative I-70 plan deserves serious consideration.

Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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