COLUMBIA — Columbia and Boone County candidates for state legislature seats are offering alternative solutions to a proposed toll on Interstate 70 to pay for infrastructure repair.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has said that extensive work is necessary along the 200-mile stretch of the 60-year-old highway between Wentzville and Independence.
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In addition to infrastructure repairs, MoDOT's proposed improvements include additional lanes and building lanes solely for truck and commercial use.
MoDOT has estimated that any solution for I-70 would cost between $2 billion and $4 billion.
Built between 1956 and 1965 and intended to carry between 12,000 and 18,000 vehicles a day, I-70 is one of the state's main thoroughfares for passenger and commercial traffic. MoDOT estimates that, on average, between 30,000 and 40,000 vehicles travel I-70's more rural sections every day, 13,000 of those are tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles. Near Wentzville, MoDOT estimates 45,000 vehicles, including 15,000 trucks, travel the road each day.
At the start of the 2012 legislative session, MoDOT Director Kevin Keith told a group of lawmakers that the interstate is in danger of becoming a "gravel parking lot." Speaking before the General Assembly's Joint Transportation Committee, Keith suggested tolls established initially through a public-private partnership could finance the repairs, which could take place over six to eight years.
The Hancock Amendment to the Missouri Constitution limits the General Assembly's power to raise state revenue through large tax increases such as what might be necessary to fund an I-70 project.
MoDOT suggested using a public-private partnership to raise money for its I-70 plans so state lawmakers would not have to raise taxes. Under the partnership, a private company would have put up the money to construct the toll road system. Some of the revenue from the tolls would be used to reimburse it.
In February, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said he wanted input from the voters before allowing a toll to be placed on I-70.
The Senate Transportation Committee held a series of hearings over three weeks to discuss the possibility of a toll and other potential solutions. While the committee held extensive discussions, it did not approve the MoDOT plan. Lawmakers and MoDOT later identified other possible solutions, including an increase in the state's fuels tax or a statewide sales tax.
MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel said the department had suggested using toll roads because there "wasn't any movement on other fronts," but the department favors any idea for providing funding.
State senators have established an interim committee tasked with talking to the public about I-70. The Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee has been touring parts of the state since April.
"(The committee) is just listening to ideas proposed by others like toll roads, a gas tax, a sales tax or a combination of all of them," Brendel said, adding that MoDOT is expecting the committee's recommendations by mid-November.
The committee visited Columbia on July 9 and will make its last stop in Lee's Summit on Aug. 6.
Talk about fixing I-70 is nothing new. Twelve years ago, a MoDOT feasibility study projected the construction of additional lanes or building a highway parallel to I-70 — an option that has not been widely discussed since — would cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
In November 1999, then MoDOT Director Henry Hungerbeeler asked legislators for the authority to establish bridge and road tolls. He told a state House committee that insufficient investment in transportation had resulted in "a large backlog of unfunded projects."
Then state Rep. Danny Staples, a Democrat from Eminence, introduced a bill that would have put toll roads to a vote of the people. "Toll roads are going to be the wave of the future in funding transportation across America," he said at the time. His legislation, however, went nowhere.
In 2000, Democratic lawmakers supported a time-limited bond project that capped spending at $2 billion, but it died as well. The state fuels tax of 17 cents per gallon hasn't risen since 1992, making it increasingly difficult for MoDOT to pay for highway projects.
What the candidates are saying
As the committee continues to make its way across the state, most local candidates spoke out against the use of toll roads. Here are some of their ideas:
State Senate District 19
Incumbent Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R) said infrastructure improvement has to be a top priority, adding that he "can't rule any (funding options) out yet" because of a lack of public discussion. Schaefer said that bond issues could be a potential source of money for I-70 and that Missouri should cash in on its AAA bond rating. "If you are going to borrow money, why not borrow money when it is cheap. If we are going to tout our AAA rating then we should use it to borrow cheaply." Schaefer also said that if the state can find the money MoDOT should do a full repair. The $2 billion option, he said, doesn't make a lot of sense.
- State Rep. Mary Still (D) said the state should issue bonds to pay for improvements because they are cheap and because "construction companies are eager for the business." Still added that other solutions, such as toll roads or a tax increase, would have to go to a vote of the people, requiring future highway plans to include more than I-70. "We're gonna have to do something to get statewide support, ... (the improvements) would have to be more than just to I-70."
- Mike Becker (R) could not be reached for comment. At a primary candidate forum held earlier this month, Becker said that he opposes any type of tax increase and that the solution lies in "getting the big trucks off the road." Becker also advocated using railroads for commercial shipments.
- Caleb Rowden (R) said he is open to using a sales or fuel tax increase, if it is limited and dedicated to funding highway improvements. "No one wants to talk about taxes ... but it's part of a bigger (budget) conversation, and taxes could be a treatment."
- Chris Dwyer (R) said that a combination of an increased fuel and sales tax is a viable option but that it's up to the voters to decide if they want to raise taxes to fix roads. "If voters say no to raising taxes, then we simply have to deal with it." Dwyer added that other revenue sources, such as limiting tax credits, could be used to get more money.
- Former state Sen. Dennis Smith (R) said there "are many options that need to be on the table" including toll roads, a sales tax and higher licensing fees. Smith added that he would prefer a "combination of several revenue sources" to pay for the interstate's repairs and expansion.
- Former state Sen. Ken Jacob (D) said the "consequence of not fixing (I-70) is unacceptable" and "out-of-state traffic needs to pay its fair share." He advocates higher fees on heavy trucks. Jacob also said he supports using bonds to pay for the project and wants to look at amending the state constitution to allow the state to pay for bonds over the duration of an infrastructure project. Currently, bonds can only be issued over a 25 year period. "I don't know if it's the best idea but I think it's worthy of discussion."
House District 45
- Incumbent Rep. Chris Kelly (D) said Missourians are probably not ready for toll roads and "the problem with a gas tax is it's a shrinking area of revenue." Kelly added that he does not know the answer and would consider either option. "If we don't do anything, I-70, in 15 years, will be a parking lot."
House District 46
- Incumbent Rep. Stephen Webber (D) said the reaction from people on toll roads has been "overwhelmingly negative," and he does not see that as a viable option. He said that whatever solution lawmakers come up with, it would need to be on the ballot for voters to approve. "We need to keep putting ideas before the voters," he said.
- Fred Berry (R) said the economy must get back on track before I-70 and other projects could be addressed. "We are having trouble paying for a lot of things because the economy is in a tank," he said, adding that toll roads would only add grief and congestion on the interstate.
House District 47
- Former state Rep. Nancy Copenhaver (D) said a combination of state bonding "to get things started right away," incentives for trucks to use other routes, and small increases in license fees and the fuel tax should be used to pay for the improvements. "I'd be OK for toll roads for a new road, but not an existing one because it needs too much change."
- John Wright (D) said toll roads have "disadvantages" such as higher traffic congestion and the cost of building toll plazas. Wright said Missouri's fuel tax could be raised since "it is harder to fund highways at a constant gas tax rate," while other revenue streams, such as tax credit reform and having an Internet sales tax, could fund repairs.
- Mitch Richards (R) said that he opposes tax increases and that lawmakers should look at the budget and tax credit reform to find more money. He added that he would only support an increased sales tax if there were a decrease in the income tax.
House District 50
- Incumbent Rep. Caleb Jones (R) said he does not think toll roads are the answer right now and legislators have to reevaluate MoDOT's funding and find a "better mechanism for funding our roads." He said the legislature has to look at where funds from the fuel and sales taxes are going and how it is gathering state dollars. Jones added that repairing I-70 will be "one of the hardest issues the legislature will face" over the next two years.
Missourian reporter Jordan Shapiro contributed to this report.