JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to allow tolls along most of Interstate 70 in Missouri is probably dead for the year, and state senators have instead opted to have lawmakers study the issue later in the year.
Senate transportation committee chairman Bill Stouffer said Thursday that he likely won't move the tolls measure forward from his panel, moments after the Senate voted 33-0 in favor of forming a committee to study all of the state's infrastructure needs during the summer and fall.
"I think anything that we do (about highway funding) will have to go to a vote of the people, probably through the initiative petition process" said Stouffer, R-Napton. "Hopefully, we can get a better idea of what people want and need."
The study panel would have 14 members, eight Republicans and six Democrats, split evenly between the House and Senate. The panel would hold hearings after the legislative session ends on May 18 and would report its findings to the General Assembly by Jan. 1.
A measure creating the committee now goes to the House. Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, signaled support for such a panel, while noting the group's recommendations may never become legislation.
"I think infrastructure is an important enough topic that we should have those discussions," he said.
Tilley announced in March that he is creating another panel to study infrastructure needs that will also hold meetings around the state.
The proposals for study groups have come as officials from the Missouri Department of Transportation have stressed an increasingly urgent need for more funding, particularly on I-70.
MoDOT director Kevin Keith warned in February that increasing traffic could grind the freeway into a "gravel parking lot" within a few years if lawmakers do nothing to boost funding.
Sitting next to two plastic canisters with layers of concrete and asphalt taken from sections of I-70 near Columbia, Keith pitched a plan in which a private company would finance improvements to I-70 and recoup the money by collecting tolls from the outer St. Louis suburbs to the outskirts of the Kansas City area.
Inside the canisters, the surface of the road chunks appeared smooth while layers underneath were cracked and crumbling. Keith said the roads underneath drivers throughout the state are in similar condition.
Keith said the toll funding would give MoDOT three options for I-70 improvements, ranging in cost from $2 billion to $4 billion. Improvements could include adding more lanes, installing new medians and building truck-only lanes.
And he pointed out that I-70 has already received tentative federal approval to install tolls through a pilot program — approval that has only been given to a few other projects nationwide.
But the toll proposals collided head-on with strong opposition from the state's trucking and gas station industries, as well as average citizens, who all said they feared that tolls would balloon the cost of driving in the state.
They predicted that new loads of cars and trucks fleeing tolls would choke the narrow state highways and county roads near the interstate, possibly accelerating the deterioration of those roads.
After the Senate's Thursday vote on the study committee, Keith said he likely wouldn't recommend tolls for road projects other than I-70. But he said if lawmakers don't find a solution soon, roads may deteriorate to the point where drivers notice the problems in their everyday travel.
"If we ever get there, the problem might be so big that we can't fix and I don't want to get that far," he said. "This isn't a solution, but at least this keeps the dialogue going."