JEFFERSON CITY — Interstate 70, which runs west and east through the middle of Missouri, needs big improvements quickly. The question is how to pay for it.
Missouri Department of Transportation Director Kevin Keith told a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday that rapidly increasing amounts of traffic could turn I-70 into a "graveled parking lot" within 15 years if the highway is not widened and repaved to make it safer and ease congestion.
"(I-70) runs fine as long as we don't have an accident or work on it," he said. "But if we do either of those, traffic gets backed up for 10 miles."
The state has three different options for improvements, ranging in cost from $2 billion to $6 billion. The plans would allow the state to repave the highway that's mostly two lanes in each direction, add more lanes, install new medians and perhaps build separate lanes for large trucks.
Keith said such the improvements could be made in six to eight years, with financing up front from private companies. Those companies could then collect tolls from drivers over several years to recoup their investment. He said such an arrangement would allow the state to quickly begin work, potentially creating up to 12,000 construction jobs in the state.
Keith declined to specify an exact toll rate for the highway, but he said similar projects in other states have tolls of about 10 to 15 cents per mile. Large trucks would have to pay two or three times that amount.
While tolls could allow the state to accomplish ambitious goals on I-70, public sentiment seemed to be set against the idea during Tuesday's hearing by the Missouri General Assembly Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight.
Wentzville resident Edward Wicklein told lawmakers that he can see the interstate's rush-hour congestion from his house near I-70's Lake St. Louis exit. He said the highway does need to be improved, but said tolls would disproportionately affect drivers and towns near the highway, even though all regions of the state benefit from the road.
Instead, Wicklein said the state should fund the improvements by raising its gas tax from the current 17 cents per gallon. As cars become more fuel-efficient, he said, the state will collect less money for its highways as drivers buy less gas.
Wicklein, a retired Presbyterian minister, said he drives a newer model Chevy Impala and can travel several hundred miles between fill-ups. That means he puts more wear on the state's roads while paying less in fuel taxes.
"The price of everything else has increased," he said, alluding to the rising cost of construction materials and worker wages. "Why should not that increase?"
Keith estimated other funding options would require a 15-cent increase to Missouri's gas tax for the next decade or an extra half-cent sales tax for the next 10 years.
Lawmakers raised several concerns with the idea of tolls, saying they could financially hurt the state's drivers and trucking businesses. They said tolls could also create more congestion on state roads and highways near I-70 as people attempt to avoid the tolls.
Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, a former truck driver, said trucking companies would make up for the cost of tolls by cutting the number of drivers they hire. The companies might also have drivers pull more trailers or larger trailers on their trucks, potentially creating a safety hazard.
Heavy construction contractors did back Keith's idea of partnering with the private sector. Such a partnership would ensure that the projects would be funded for several years, they said, giving construction companies motive to hire more workers.