Missouri lawmakers consider plans to fund Interstate 70 reconstruction

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 | 8:43 p.m. CST; updated 10:06 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 22, 2012

COLUMBIA — A variety of funding options emerged Wednesday during the Senate Transportation Committee's discussions on how to pay for the Interstate 70 reconstruction.

The hearing at the Capitol was standing room only as the committee discussed a bill that would authorize toll roads in Missouri to pay for the rebuilding of I-70. The rebuilding plan involves of a 200-mile stretch of the interstate, from near Independence to Wentzville

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, the bill would grant the Missouri Department of Transportation permission to enter into an agreement with a group of private investors to finance an overhaul of I-70. To recoup their investment, the private investors would establish and operate tolls on the highway.

The prospect of turning a free public highway into a toll road has some legislators — including the bill's sponsor — feeling a little uneasy.

"I know the word 'toll' is a dirty word," Kehoe said. "But we're just trying to start the conversation."

A large portion of the hearing was dedicated to sorting out options for funding the reconstruction, which is projected to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Committee chairman Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, mentioned a one-cent increase in Missouri's current sales tax as another possible funding stream. That measure would pull in an additional $700 million to $750 million in revenue a year, according to MoDOT.

MoDOT director Kevin Keith said a problem with increasing the sales tax is that revenue collected from the tax is dispersed across the entire state. Tolls would ensure the finances flow directly to I-70 because of the private investors maintaining the interstate.

"There are about $20 billion of transportation needs to be addressed in this state," Keith said. "Tolls can maintain I-70 long-term, and we can take current maintenance costs (on I-70) and spend it elsewhere."

MoDOT currently spends $70 million to $80 million a year on maintaining I-70, which is a little more than one-tenth of its annual revenue.

A 15-cent increase in the state's fuel tax was also discussed as a funding option. Missouri's current fuel tax, which hasn't increased since 1992, is 17 cents per gallon.

Estimates have the fuel tax increase pulling in an additional $450 million a year, Keith said.

Critics of the fuel tax increase said it is unsustainable. Improved fuel economy and hybrid cars make the fuel tax a "broken model," Kehoe said.

Todd Spencer, vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a group that represents small-business and professional truckers, favored the fuel tax increase.

"The notion that there'll be more electric cars is not going to happen," Spencer said. "We'd be more likely to see golf carts on the highway." 

Although a definite funding plan was not established, Stouffer said he thinks any funding possibility deserves the voters' opinion. The committee plans to hold two more hearings about the bill before making a recommendation to the Senate.

"I've been singing the same song for six years," Stouffer said. "We have a real opportunity here to help out this state. But the public needs to decide what happens next."

The next Senate Transportation Committee hearing will be at 8 a.m. Feb. 29 in Jefferson City.

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