Columbia legislators host forum on proposed I-70 tolls

Monday, February 6, 2012 | 11:23 p.m. CST; updated 11:39 p.m. CST, Monday, February 6, 2012

COLUMBIA — The prospect of tolls on Interstate 70 is no clearer after Monday night's public forum.

The conversation continues about how to fund repairs to the 200 miles of I-70 separating Wentzville and Independence — and Columbia is right in the middle.

Citizens packed a conference room in the Activity and Recreation Center on Monday to discuss the future of I-70 in a public forum, titled "Toll Roads in Missouri: Will they work? Will they fly? Is there a choice?," sponsored by state Reps. Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, both D-Columbia.

Panelists included Kevin Keith, director of Missouri's Department of Transportation; Rep. Thomas Long, R-Battlefield, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for Transportation and Economic Development; and Colin Myer, a financial consultant.

"Interstate 70 is the most important road in Missouri," Keith said. "If we don't do anything, it will be a parking lot."

The 250-mile-stretch of interstate, built to withstand 25 years of punishment, is approaching 60 years old. Between 34 percent and 53 percent of existing I-70 pavement is rated as "poor" or "very poor," according to a 2005 MoDOT study.

MoDOT has outlined several theoretical plans to revamp I-70.

The plans, ranging from $1.2 billion to $4 billion, would add at least one lane in each direction and increase vehicle capacity on a corridor that is the lifeblood of Missouri's economy, Keith said.

The most common solution proposed to fund the interstate overhaul is the implementation of tolls.

To do this, the department hopes legislators will authorize a public-private partnership. If a partnership were created, a consortium of investors would front the department the necessary amount to rebuild the highway. The investors would then lease the highway and receive payment through tolls.

Like many of the citizenry on hand, Long doesn't support tolling the interstate.

"I'm having a hard time figuring out how a toll isn't a tax," he said. "If we look at Interstate 70 as a toll road, we can look at it as a toll road forever."

Toll prices hinge on the rebuilding plan selected. Conceivably the amount would be around 10 to 15 cents per mile for cars and twice that for trucks. A car traveling across Missouri could expect to pay $30 overall, Keith said.

Keith emphasized that the toll technology would not include the long lines and frequent stops people imagine.

"It's an open toll system," Keith said. "One-hundred percent electronic. You put a transponder in a windshield and drive by the sensors at highway speeds."

For those without the toll transponder, the department would photograph license plates and bill the driver in the mail.

Many favor an increase in the fuel tax instead of tolls. When forum moderator George Kennedy polled the hundred or so citizens by hand, nearly three-fourths voted for an increase in fuel tax as a way to fund the interstate construction.

"Why not give higher gas tax a chance to help the roads?" said Melba Shaffer, a citizen who attended the meeting. "It seems much more fair."

Shaffer said the tolls would punish only the users of I-70, instead of evenly dispersing the cost throughout the state.

The department estimates the Missouri fuel tax would increase the price of gas 15 cents per gallon to fund the project, nearly doubling the current rate of 17 cents per gallon.

Regardless, the burden of funding the revamped interstate will fall on taxpayers, said David Stokes, a public policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute.

"The highway construction is going to be paid for somehow, whether it's taxes or tolls," Stokes said. "Tolling is feasible, doable and proven effective in many other states and countries."

Another concern for citizens is drivers who purposefully divert I-70 to circumvent the tolls, skipping businesses on the interstate and directly affecting the local economy.

Keith acknowledged the difficulty in forecasting the number of drivers who would avoid a tolled I-70.

"Yes, some of the traffic on I-70 will leave if it's converted into toll roads," Keith said. "We really can't say how much."

Lawmakers felt the public discussion of the issue helped clarify some of the confusion surrounding the possibility of tolls.

"There are a lot of different options," Webber said. "Blind loyalty to an idea isn't beneficial. I'm still trying to figure out what I think the best path for Missouri is."

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Bill Fisher February 7, 2012 | 4:52 a.m.

For those of us in Columbia, a trip to StL or KC would cost $30 or so round trip, plus the cost of gas, which could be another $20-50, depending on your vehicle. This is complete crap.

(Report Comment)
Phil Wilkinson February 7, 2012 | 7:11 a.m.

Personally, I would rather pay a higher gas tax. Our state's political representatives don't know squat about toll roads. In order for them to learn about toll roads, they would of coarse start committees and pay exorbitant fees to consultants to learn about said toll roads. On the other hand, they do know how to tax the people who put them in office so I feel they should stick with what they do best.
On another note....When I lived in Virginia they had toll roads (Norfolk-VA Beach area). The state said that the toll would be in effect until the state had enough money to fix the road (about 10 years). The state still collected tolls for 10 more years even though the road had been paid for. It was later found out by investigative reporters that the state was now using the toll money for political pet programs....Seems hard to believe that elected officials would do such a thing huh?

(Report Comment)
Bob Hill February 7, 2012 | 7:34 a.m.

I think the title of the meeting and the last paragraph are insightful about this whole process. The state wants to push this idea as if there is no other solution. They have narrowly defined the question about how to repair I-70 to only toll roads. Nothing else.

And why have they done this? Because they haven't properly saved the money from all these years (30+ years?!?!?) of collecting gas & other taxes. Now in a bind, they want to add another tax, but not call it a tax.

The ONLY way I would support a toll road is if the gas tax also went DOWN at the same time. If we are paying fees to maintain I-70 now, and they turn it into a toll road, makes sense to me that they can then lower the gas tax since they will no longer be maintaining one of our three major interstates.

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 7, 2012 | 8:15 a.m.

"Personally, I would rather pay a higher gas tax. Our state's political representatives don't know squat about toll roads."

They sure as hell know what to do with a gas tax. Check Carnahan administration. 15M$ in new gas tax, missing then is still missing.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 7, 2012 | 1:24 p.m.

("To do this, the department hopes legislators will authorize a public-private partnership. If a partnership were created, a consortium of investors would front the department the necessary amount to rebuild the highway. The investors would then lease the highway and receive payment through tolls.")
I thought the road was already built by a public-private partnership from taxpayer monies and is theoretically owned by all citizens. Such a decision of a toll road should therefore be up to a public vote by all citizens. Although after hearing how MODOT wants to have a private-public partnership with a toll builder/managment company, I'd rather see our governor disband the government company known as MODOT and use a private construction company to manage the maintenance of our interstates. It seems to be working for Motor Vehicles it might just be the right time to give a private firm the opportunity to maintain these roads, considering that MODOT's attitude is that this decision on tolls doesn't even warrant a state-wide vote.
Another approach might be just to "toll" commercial vehicles, although prices for food and goods might increase a small amount, nationally and regionally.
And as for a gas tax, perhaps the governor should work with his buddy in the white house and have him return the federal gas tax monies we already pay.
Another idea could be for our state's motorist association, AAA, partner with MADD and lobby for a state-wide restaurant/bar/casino alcohol consumption tax of Xcents per glass/bottle and an in-store alcohol tax of Xcents per container. That money could be use for all our state maintained roads. Of course, I'd still like to see the governor disband MODOT after the arrogance displayed by these politicians to circumvent voting at the booths. Unless they make the toll booth payments voluntary.
("Why toll roads are a bad idea
National Motorists Association")

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 7, 2012 | 2:27 p.m.

The people who use the infrastructure are the one's who should pay for it. It is curious that rightward leaning folks would be opposed to this idea. Note that the gas tax + other direct taxes on users do not cover the full cost of maintaining/building highway infrastructure:
I have yet to hear a cogent argument for why 35% of the funds should come from nonusers. It is certainly a benefit to economic growth, that transportation costs are heavily subsidized. However, that is money that could be spent either on more efficent transportation modalities, or alternatively not taken out of the taxpayers pocket to began with. The result would be that goods trucked would cost more. However, this is not necesarily a bug, as local providers of goods would become more competitive. Moreover, it would began to address our staggering overconsumption of oil problem.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 7, 2012 | 4:39 p.m.

Doesn't matter which way one "leans" as good, safe, well maintained reasonably priced maintenance and expansion of roads help everyone from the person behind the wheel, to those who use Greyhound, to the consumer who does not travel, but relies on goods and food transported by the truckers. Not to mention the towns, businesses and colleges which benefit from highway travel. A toll road of the magnitude MODOT and some politicians propose will hurt volunteers who use their cars to help others, low-waged workers, seniors on a fixed income, college students who don't depend on their wealthy parents and I'm certain others. Let alone the impact this monopoly of an East to West corridor will have on the fragmented alternate roads people will be seeking out, Amazing that some of those who lean left don't see a problem with MODOT advocating to avoid a statewide vote on selecting the way maintenance and/or expansion should be handled. The forums are window dressing as we're set up to accept whatever MODOT can pull off. Is the government good road stewards of our money for how these interstates are maintained? Is I-70 really as bad as they portray it to be?
Disband MODOT now!
("Toll roads divert traffic and cause accidents:")

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 8, 2012 | 8:03 a.m.

"Disband MODOT now!" Or, at least put them under a new Administration.

(Report Comment)

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