If Missouri Rep. Jeff Harris has his way, drivers on some state highways will be digging for loose change as part of their daily commute.
Harris, D-Columbia, pre-filed a bill Monday that would amend the Missouri Constitution — subject to voter approval — to allow construction of tollbooths on state highways. Tolls would help pay for improvements to Missouri’s roads, which Harris noted are ranked among the worst in the country.
“It’s an embarrassing statistic, and we need to do better,” he said. “Our roads are unsafe and in terrible condition.”
Harris decided to champion tollbooths because, although not a cure-all, he thinks they would be a good start toward addressing Missouri’s road problems. He said tolls are better than taxes because only those who use the roads would pay for their improvements.
Harris might face a difficult battle. Even if the amendment wins approval from the Missouri General Assembly, it must then go to voters — probably in November 2004. Missourians of late have been unwilling to open their wallets for road improvements. Voters in August 2002 rejected Proposition B, which called for a half-cent sales tax increase and a 4-cent motor fuels tax increase that would have generated around $500 million a year for highway projects.
Harris, however, said many of his constituents support toll roads. Residents also complain about road conditions more than almost anything else, he said.
“We want to let the voters decide if they’re in favor of (tolls),” Harris said. “Voters aren’t inclined to support a tax increase, but this is a user pay system — if you don’t drive on a toll road, you’re not paying for it.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation also supports tolls. Spokesman Jeff Briggs said the department has been working for several years to get toll-road legislation introduced. According to a 2002 department study, toll roads could raise enough money to pay for at least half the nearly $3 billion needed to widen and improve Interstate 70. Transportation department officials said in October they would like tollbooths placed along the interstate at the Kansas and Illinois borders.
“We have a lot more need than money,” Briggs said. “Harris’ bill would be a good (solution).”
Briggs said the transportation department supplied Harris with some of the language for the bill. While the proposal suggests authorizing the state to issue bonds to pay for tollbooths, it does not outline possible tollbooth locations or fees. Briggs said the department would work with the legislature on those details. They would be introduced in separate legislation only if the initial amendment wins voter approval.
“That would be the big hurdle,” Briggs said. “Once it’s cleared, the other things would be worked out.”
Harris said tollbooths could be placed along interstates 70 and 44 but emphasized that if the legislature and voters approve the bill, tollbooths will not suddenly pop up all over the state.
“It’s a limited proposal. There would be very limited tolling, and I would only support charging (what is) reasonable,” he said.
Harris believes he has bipartisan support for the bill but knows he will face some resistance.
“It’s going to be a challenge to get it passed; but it’s the same as any other (bill),” he said.