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."