Missouri lawmakers explore options for Interstate 70 tolls

Missouri Department of Transportation Director Kevin Keith paints a grim picture of the future of Interstate 70, the state’s busiest highway.

In less than 20 years, “I-70 is going to be a gravel parking lot,” Keith told a joint legislative transportation committee this week. “The option of doing nothing is not there. We can’t keep going the way we are.”

Even now, traffic on I-70 runs fine “as long as we don’t have an accident or work on it,” Keith said. “But if we do either of those, traffic gets backed up for 10 miles.”

MoDOT’s proposed solution, however, is proving divisive. The agency wants legislators to give it permission to enter into a public-private partnership that would turn I-70 into a toll road.

“I hate tolls,” said Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City who supports the idea. “There is nobody in this state who likes tolls, but somewhere along the line you have to pay.”

Massive improvements are needed for the 60-year-old interstate, Keith said, but MoDOT’s budget for infrastructure projects has plummeted from $1.2 billion to $600 million.

“There is no money in our normal construction plan to undertake a project the magnitude of I-70” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

That’s where tolls would come in.

How much the tolls would be is still not clear, Keith said, but he estimated they could range between 10 to 15 cents a mile for cars and up to three times that much for large trucks. Tolls would be collected electronically rather than at booths, both to keep expenses down and to keep traffic flowing, he said.

The state would contract with a private entity to operate the tolls, which would provide up front funding that would allow construction to move at an “unreasonably fast” speed, with a completion date set for six to eight years.

The construction, and the eventual tolling locations, would take place from the Interstate 470 interchange near Kansas City east to the Highway 40-61 interchange near St. Louis.

The amount of the toll is dependent on how much up-front funding the state needs, Keith said.

For $2 billion, the pavement along the entire interstate would be replaced and a third lane in each direction would be added. For another billion, the plan would include replacing all interchanges and a 100 foot wide median for future expansion.

The most expensive plan, coming in at $4 billion, would consist of rebuilding I-70 with two lanes in each direction for cars and two in each direction for large trucks only.

Christopher Chung, CEO of the Missouri Partnership — a quasi-governmental agency that works to recruit businesses to the state — said quality transportation is always at or near the top of the list priorities for companies looking to relocate.

“A central location nationally means nothing without a robust, quality transportation system,” Chung said.

In addition to improving highway safety, Keith said MoDOT estimates that even the most inexpensive plan would create roughly 6,000 jobs a year across the state in construction and related industries for the duration of the project.

What’s more, tolling would free up the $75 million to $90 million the state spends on I-70 upkeep to use for other projects, Keith said.

State Rep. Tim Meadows, an Imperial Democrat who worked as a truck driver for 25 years, said his concern is the added cost to distribution companies might lead them to consolidate shipments, a move that could result in the loss of trucking jobs.

“I could never support something that is going to result in losing jobs, especially good-paying jobs like this,” Meadows said.

Additionally, trucks and cars could begin to avoid I-70 to keep from paying the tolls, which would increase traffic on other, smaller roads, Meadows said.

Tom Crawford, president of the Missouri Trucking Association, agreed that trucking jobs likely will be lost if I-70 becomes a toll road. He said his organization would rather see an increase to the state’s fuel tax to pay for infrastructure repair.

Missouri’s fuel tax of 17 cents a gallon is in the bottom tier nationally, Crawford noted.

State Rep. Thomas Long, a Battlefield Republican who is a fleet manager for Prime Transportation, said proposed tolls could add up to $75 for trucks to transport goods across the state.

“The impact on consumers and businesses along the I-70 corridor would be tremendous,” Long said, adding it would be difficult for businesses to absorb the additional costs.

Keith estimated that the I-70 project would require a 15-cent increase to the fuel tax for the next decade or a half-cent sales tax increase, two ideas he dismissed as “political fantasy” at this time.

With the U.S. Department of Transportation granting Missouri authority to convert I-70 into a toll road, the window of opportunity has opened, he pointed out.

State Rep. Charlie Denison, a Springfield Republican and chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, said if any plan moves forward on tolls he would want it to go before voters for their approval.

So far, no legislation has been introduced that would put MoDOT’s plan into motion.