Slapping tolls on Interstate 70 isn’t a popular possibility with many people in Missouri. But given the continued deterioration and congestion, Gov. Jay Nixon is correctly pushing for further study of the approach.
A preliminary report Nixon requested from the Missouri Department of Transportation includes several feasible ways to put tolls in place on the interstate.
Tolls could make good sense on this limited amount of roadway and, perhaps in the future, on a few other interstates. Tolls require users to pay a bit more for the damage done to a highway and for the subsequent maintenance and repairs needed to keep it up. Tolls especially would generate revenue from the large volume of out-of-state traffic that crosses Missouri daily on I-70.
One plan that state officials outline in the report calls for expanding the current highway to three lanes each way for about 200 miles between the edges of Kansas City and St. Louis. This $2 billion option would avoid what the report calls the possibility of “stop-and-go” traffic on I-70 by 2030.
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The tolls charged for this project — or for more expensive $3 billion and $4 billion proposals that include rebuilt interchanges and even more lanes — still require more study, the state said. But early estimates show that they would be 10 to 15 cents per mile for automobiles and up to three times that for trucks.
Do the math, and that means a one-way trip across the state could cost motorists $20 to $30.
Trucks would pay much more, though, which makes good sense given the damage the large vehicles do to the roads. However, trucking companies also would be among the most bitter opponents of tolls.
Kansas already has a 236-mile toll system that, overall, seems to keep a long stretch of highway in good shape. But that system costs about 5 cents per mile for automobiles, though it charges trucks roughly three times that amount or more.
Many Missouri legislators in the past have questioned whether tolls are appropriate on I-70, partly because users think it’s part of public infrastructure supported by current tax dollars.
That argument is partly true; the state spends millions every year maintaining the freeway. However, using tolls to maintain I-70 and create a wider, safer road would free up some state funds to upgrade other public roads.
Eventually, if tolls are sought, voters should be given the chance to pass a constitutional amendment to put them in place.
Based on past experience, that would be far from a slam dunk.
Missourians last fall rejected a sales tax increase to pay for road upgrades throughout the state.
And gasoline tax increases have not fared well at the polls, even though the state’s tax is a woefully low 17 cents a gallon. It’s one of the worst in the nation for providing revenue to maintain crucial public infrastructure. Given the plummeting prices for oil, Missouri lawmakers should take the opportunity in 2015 to propose a hefty increase in the gas tax.
State transportation officials contend Missouri is not investing enough in building and repairing roads and highways that provide safe travel for motorists, economic development opportunities for cities and a lifeline for truck traffic.
The state forecasts that “life on I-70 will continue to degrade” unless improvements are made.
So far, legislators and voters have not taken these warnings seriously. Nixon, the Missouri Department of Transportation and other supporters of better roads must keep working to provide compelling evidence to approve tolls, higher taxes or a reasonable combination of road-improvement funding.