Columbia in path of long-awaited expansion of Interstate 70

Thursday, April 18, 2013 | 3:42 p.m. CDT; updated 8:59 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 22, 2013

COLUMBIA — Columbia residents have heard, perhaps more than once, that Interstate 70 needs updates — new lanes, new pavement and safer bridges. 

Public hearings have spanned more than a decade on the cross-country thoroughfare, which carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles through Columbia each day. Designs have come and gone, including concepts in 2008 that showed the footprints for new truck lanes and local interchanges.

What's wrong with the interstate?


Bob Brendel, special assignments coordinator at the state Department of Transportation, said any strategy for expanding Interstate 70 must address three problems:

Age/condition — I-70 is the oldest interstate in the nation. "It’s original pavement has basically been beaten to a pulp from years and years and years of growing traffic," Brendel said. "Surface treatments last shorter and shorter periods of time because what’s underneath isn’t in very good shape." Also, many of the bridges on I-70 are reaching the end of their 50- to 75-year lifespan.

Capacity — I-70 was designed to carry 12,000 to 18,000 vehicles a day. Now it carries anywhere from 23,000 to 100,000 vehicles a day. It's estimated that without adding any capacity, by 2030, I-70 would operate at a stop-and-go condition, Brendel said.

Safety — Throughout public meetings on I-70 during the past decade, Brendel said, the issue he heard most was people's discomfort driving in close proximity to increasing numbers of tractor trailers that make up 30 percent to 40 percent of the traffic. 

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There's never been an answer as to how the expansion of I-70 would be paid for, and the $2 billion estimate for the most affordable design would be more than double the Department of Transportation's annual construction budget.

Columbia is situated near the middle of the oldest stretch of I-70 in the country. Built in the 1950s and 1960s, the highway was expected to last into the 1980s. By 2013, the interstate had more than doubled its expected lifespan, carrying three times as many vehicles and trucks that weigh far more than they did when the highway was designed.

“If we don’t do something in the near future, I-70 is going to become a parking lot,” State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. “And distribution companies won’t be as interested in Missouri if our highway infrastructure isn’t capable of carrying the freight.”

The $2 billion design would replace all of the pavement and add two lanes in the existing median. A 200-mile concrete barrier would separate eastbound and westbound traffic, and trucks would be limited to the far-right lanes of the six-lane configuration.

Most of I-70 in Columbia has no median, so widening the interstate would need to take place on the outside of the existing highway, Bob Brendel, special assignments coordinator at the state Department of Transportation, said. The extensive use of retaining walls might be a way to minimize the amount of right-of-way needed, he said.

"It’s a highly developed corridor, so it’s safe to assume there probably would have to be some right-of-way acquisition, but to just what extent I don’t know," Brendel said. "Some re-evaluation of the studies previously done would have to occur before MoDOT could move any farther."

Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., said there are businesses in Columbia that would benefit from reconstructing I-70 and certainly during the construction process. 

"If you were to talk to the city or the county about sales tax revenue collection, there's not an insignificant amount of that that comes by virtue of people who are traveling up and down the interstate to stop for gas and food or whatever they need," Brooks said. 

Brendel said hearings in the state legislature suggest there's a consensus that something must be done but not how to pay for it.

“Missouri's huge infrastructure system is a key to our economy, and keeping the infrastructure system viable and safe is one of the core responsibilities of the department,” state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said. “Opening a door to commerce moving across the state is critical to Missouri. It’s kind of who we are. We’re the transportation hub in the middle of the United States.”

Rudy Farber, former chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission,  unveiled a proposal in January to create a 10-year, 1-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation. The proposed tax, which would require legislative approval and a statewide vote, could generate $8 billion dollars in 10 years.

Kehoe filed a bill in February to do just that. It passed the Senate on March 14 and moved to the House of Representatives.

Nothing specific has been written in the bill about I-70, but Brendel said the interstate remains a top priority for the Department of Transportation.

Once started, the project could be finished in five years. But construction can't begin until additional engineering and designs are completed, and that is if the Department of Transportation had additional funding, Brendel said. 

"MoDOT wouldn’t move forward with any additional engineering on I-70 unless it knew it had the money to build it," Brendel said. "And it’s likely that if we were moving ahead with I-70, we would pursue some kind of design-build project where we would seek proposals from teams of designers and contractors together to bring their innovations to the project in order to get the most bang for the buck."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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