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.
House District 45
House District 46
House District 47
House District 50
Missourian reporter Jordan Shapiro contributed to this report.