Roadways featuring solar panels, smart highways are among MoDOT pilot projects

A year after it kicked off its Road to Tomorrow initiative in Kansas City, the Missouri Department of Transportation on Wednesday unveiled several pilot projects to address future transportation and funding.

They include smart highways, platooning truck traffic and creating energy with solar panels in the roadway. Some of the projects could turn highways into moneymakers for the state.

“It gets Missouri and MoDOT prepared for 21st century innovations,” said Tom Blair, leader of the department’s Road to Tomorrow Initiative. “We need to get in the game as a state and as an agency.”

The announcement came during the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission meeting held Wednesday at Union Station.

“Sixty years ago when the interstate system was created, the world was a much different place,” Blair said. “There were fewer cars on our roads, and those trucks were much lighter.”

It’s time to rebuild the oldest part of the interstate system, but it needs to happen in a way to meet the needs of the future rather than following the designs of the past, he said.

If the initiative is successful, there’s a possibility that taxpayers might not have to pay through tax increases. Some funding could come through grants. And new revenue streams could be created by offering optional premium services that people pay for as well as a creating energy along the public right of way.

The transportation department received more than 350 submissions since it announced its Road to Tomorrow initiative.

The department has applied for two grants, including one that would be used to fund a smart highway system in Kansas City.

Submitted in April, the grant would allow for testing smart pavement technologies, replacing a bridge in critical condition and alleviating a choke point on Interstate 70.

The department expects to learn by fall whether it will receive the grants.

Another pilot project involves developing a smart highway with data and technology services that people would purchase.

The department’s Kansas City District soon hopes to seek proposals for a smart highway demonstration project that could generate revenue on a large scale.

Interested bidders could add value to an existing project or identify a different opportunity.

The third pilot project seeks proposals from companies or individuals to use rights of way, bridges, facilities, signs or camera poles for technology applications in exchange for guaranteed revenue.

The department is focusing on U.S. Routes 36, 63 and 67 and Interstate 49. If successful, the project would be expanded to other routes.

The fourth project would allow platooning of trucks. Semi-trailers would operate as connected vehicles, acting as one. This would reduce fuel consumption and improve safety through driver-assisted features such as automatic braking, Blair said.

The final pilot project would focus on creating energy in the public right of way. The department is looking into a project with Solar Roadways of Sandpoint, Idaho, which is developing solar panels that can be driven upon.

“If their version of the future is realistic, if we can make that happen, then roadways can begin paying for themselves,” Blair said.

The department hopes that the Historic Route 66 Welcome Center at Conway, Mo., would get the first solar roadway panels.

“We expect them to be in place, I’m hoping, by the end of this year, maybe before snow flies,” Blair said.

The project could generate a lot of interest by bringing “the history and the future together,” he said.

To get the most out of its solar roadway project, the department will seek crowd funding.

“We are going to go out there publicly and on the internet … and ask for money to make our solar roadway pilot project even bigger and better,” Blair said.

In other news from the commission meeting, commissioner Stephen Miller of Kansas City announced he was stepping down effective July 1.

“It’s been a wonderful, exciting, thrilling experience, and I will be eternally grateful to the governor and citizens of Missouri for the opportunity to have led such a talented group of people,” Miller said.

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb