State joins effort to get grant for I-70 work

Indiana, Illinois and Ohio work with Missouri in a bid for federal funds.
Thursday, June 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:30 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Missouri has joined three other states in seeking federal approval to expand a 790-mile stretch of Interstate 70.

If selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio will find themselves on a fast track for environmental review and access to federal credit assistance.

Applicants to the Corridors of the Future program must provide innovative designs and financing strategies, said Bob Brendel, Missouri Department of Transportation outreach coordinator for program delivery. Accepted proposals will not receive federal money for construction. They will, however, have access to federal expertise in environmental and financial planning, as well as access to credit through the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act.

Thirty-eight proposals were initially submitted to the Corridors of the Future program. Only three to five of the 14 that remain under consideration will eventually be designated Corridors of the Future. The 14 proposals would affect eight major sections of interstate around the country: I-70 between Kansas City and eastern Ohio, I-95 between Florida and Maine; I-15 in southern California and Nevada; I-80/94 and I-90 linking Illinois, Indiana and Michigan; I-5 in California, Washington and Oregon; I-69 from Texas to Michigan; I-80 in Nevada and California; and I-10 from California to Florida.

Missouri, Brendel said, has outlined its own design for expanding I-70 to eight lanes in Columbia and six lanes in rural areas, but without dedicated truck lanes.

However, coming up with an attractive proposal to beat out the other contenders may require the four states to consider modifying existing plans, state highway officials say.

Jeff Briggs, spokesman for Missouri’s Transportation Department, said the original plan for expanding I-70 had considered the possibility of having dedicated truck lanes. If the multistate proposal is selected, that may become the preferred option. The cost of studying any modifications in the individual states’ plans would be shared among the four states, Briggs said.

In a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, City Manager Bill Watkins said the Columbia Area Transportation Study Organization supports the multistate I-70 proposal because it recognizes that “the separation of truck traffic from vehicular traffic is a viable strategy to reduce congestion and improve safety in our urban area.”

Watkins said that his support for the multistate proposal did not mean he no longer supports the Transportation Department’s original plan. In the end, he said, we will probably get some combination of the various designs that have been put forth.

About one-third of the traffic on I-70 is tractor trailers, said Roger Schwartze, Missouri Department of Transportation Central District engineer. According to the four-state proposal, the volume of truck traffic on I-70 will increase three times faster than vehicular traffic between now and 2030.

With 70,000 vehicles traveling on I-70 through Columbia each day, Tom Crawford, Missouri Motor Carriers Association president and CEO, said it is a busy area for a trucker because there is an intersection nearly every mile.

“Columbia is another area where (truckers) have to pay attention,” he said. “A lot of truckers are more comfortable being in the left-hand lane. You have to have your game on.”

In many major cities across the U.S., truckers like to go through heavy metropolitan areas at times where there is the least amount of traffic, Crawford said.

Columbia, he said, is becoming one of those cities, although not quite yet.

“It’s approaching that time where they want to go through (Columbia) at nonpeak times,” Crawford said.

Funding remains a perennial problem. The cost to widen I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis is estimated at $3.1 billion, Schwartze said.

Legislative attempts to raise the money needed have repeatedly stalled. Ballot measures in Missouri to change I-70 into a toll road have failed twice, once in 1970 and again in 1992.

Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, sponsored a bill last session to put a measure on the August 2008 ballot that would have raised the state sales tax by 1 percent from 2009 to 2018. Heidi Kolkmeyer, director of constituent services for Stouffer, said opponents of the sales tax increase thought toll roads were a more appropriate solution, especially tolls that charged large trucks more. The legislature did not vote on the bill.

“We have been talking for years about the need to do something about I-70,” Watkins said, “but unless the resources come from somewhere, it’s not going to happen.”

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