JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to add tolls to a rebuilt Interstate 70 in Missouri could provide Joe DeLong's steel company with a much-needed boost in an industry downturn.
But where DeLong sees a healthier balance sheet for his business, farmer Roy Popp sees more dangerous interchanges near his home. And Boonville resident Jim Ramer sees a thinner wallet in his pocket.
All of them voiced their concerns Wednesday as the Senate Transportation Committee continued hearings on a proposal to allow the state to contract with a private company to fix I-70 in exchange for being allowed to charge tolls. The sponsor of that proposal, Sen. Mike Kehoe, said the highway urgently needs more funding — and more suggestions from the public.
"This is a major conversation that we're having, not just about the project that the bill deals with, but also about transportation in general for the state of Missouri and the lives it impacts," said Kehoe, R-Jefferson City.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has offered three options for the highway improvements that range in cost from $2 billion to $4 billion. Improvements could include adding more lanes, installing new medians and building truck-only lanes.
DeLong, who runs a steel fabrication company that builds beams for bridges at its facilities in Jefferson City and Sedalia, told lawmakers that rebuilding I-70 could help both his business and the state's economy.
"Infrastructure spending, in Missouri and the United States, has aided economic growth," he said. "If we pull the trigger on this project and give it the green light, we'll be able to remember 2012 as the year that Missouri upgraded its Main Street, I-70."
Popp, who lives east of Mexico, Mo., said he fears the state would have to rebuild the interchanges going onto the interstate to allow for toll collection, which he said would cause some drivers to suddenly leave the highway for side roads.
"It's going to be much more dangerous than driving on the current I-70," the farmer said.
MoDOT officials, however, have said tolls likely would be collected electronically — not at traditional toll plazas.
Popp said lawmakers should consider raising the state's 17-cent gas tax or instituting an additional sales tax to boost funding for all of the state's highways.
But Sen. Kevin Engler, a member of the Transportation Committee, said people who live far from the highway, as in his district, seldom use I-70 and would be unlikely to support increased sales or gas taxes if they were put to a statewide vote.
"You're going to have to do a lot of convincing to have them raise their taxes on everything they purchase every day so that (Interstate) 70 can be redone," said Engler, R-Farmington.
Ramer, a retired engineer from Boonville, said MoDOT should make the highway more structurally sound and repair it in sections using the department's current state funding. He said the state agency would not be able to raise billions of dollars in private capital for the project.
Ramer said he drives on I-70 to see doctors in Columbia and he estimated that if tolls were set at 15 cents per mile, he would have to pay about $46 per month to make those trips, which he said he can't afford.
Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, said more public hearings will be held on toll legislation in coming weeks. He has said he hopes to eventually vote the proposal out of his committee so it can go before the full Senate.