WRIGHT CITY, Mo. (AP) – Truck driver Curtis Banks Jr. traverses Missouri and Kansas on Interstate 70 every week and has no real beef with its condition.
“Now you go out (Interstate) 40 going towards California, it beats you to death,” Banks said after stepping out of his truck at the Wright City rest area along I-70. “Seventy’s pretty good. It’s one of the best highways to ride on.”
Banks, of Tennessee, said Missouri’s latest look at charging tolls on the east-west highway simply raises too many questions. Where will the money go? How is the state spending the money it already has? Why doesn’t Missouri make I-70 – “the main drag” – a top priority for the funds it already has?
Faced with tight road-building budgets, states are looking for new pots of money. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon this month resurrected the idea of using tolls to rebuild a roughly 200-mile stretch of I-70 from Wentzville to Independence at a cost of $2 billion to $4 billion, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
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The idea of adding tolls to existing interstate highways has been raised – unsuccessfully – from time to time in Missouri and elsewhere. But Missouri is still one of three states with “provisional” authorization to impose tolls on an existing interstate as a pilot project.
Under the same status, former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell proposed tolls on the stretch of Interstate 95 through his state, but lawmakers rejected it during the 2013 session of the Legislature.
“The public was very much against it,” said Tamara Rollison, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We are not considering I-95 as a candidate for a toll road.”
North Carolina, the third state with the federal authorization, held public hearings a couple of years ago to air the idea of collecting tolls on its part of I-95 to pay for maintenance. This month, the state released a 10-year spending blueprint for transportation that does not include tolls, said Mike Charbonneau, spokesman for the that state’s Department of Transportation.
“We’re definitely a state that sees challenges in having enough funding to support our transportation needs,” Charbonneau said.
Missouri lawmakers had authorized use of tolls and a public-private partnership to build the I-70 Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River just north of downtown St. Louis. But Illinois refused to sign off on tolls, which led officials to other means of funding. The bridge opened in February.
In 2012, transportation officials in Missouri floated the idea of using tolls to rebuild I-70, but the proposal failed to gain much traction and faced opposition from the trucking industry and gas station owners, among others.
Stretches of I-70 are more than 55 years old. It was designed to carry up to 18,000 vehicles a day, but now carries an average of 31,000 on its most rural stretches. About one-third are trucks.
The daily pounding from all those vehicles has resulted in damage deep beneath the road’s surface, rendering resurfacing projects a mere Band-Aid, officials say.
Still, critics insist there are better ways to cover repair costs than charging tolls.
“Tolls are a horrible value,” said Tom Crawford, president of the Missouri Trucking Association. “If you are looking for the best way to put a dollar into infrastructure, tolls are one of the worst ways to do it.”
Toll roads require too much spending on overhead costs compared to fuel tax collections, he said.
Crawford added that placing toll booths on I-70 would have the unintended consequence of diverting drivers to other east-west routes that are free, including Highways 50 and 36.
Julian Walker, spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, added that placing tolls on an existing interstate highway amounts to “double taxation.”
“What we’ve seen is there are three states that have these pilot programs,” Walker said. “In each of those states, public and elected representatives have come out and said this is a bad idea.”
Earlier this year, Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 7, which would have financed transportation improvements – including a rebuilding of I-70 – by raising the sales tax three-quarters of a cent.
In a letter to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, Nixon said collecting tolls on I-70 and plowing them into the highway could free up scarce transportation dollars for other road projects. He directed the commission to analyze the toll option and report back by the end of this year.
The Missouri Department of Transportation said in a January 2012 “white paper” report that rebuilding I-70 by conventional means could require a double-digit hike in the state’s gasoline tax.
Dan Woodell, of Holts Summit, Mo., said that with increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles requiring fewer gallons, gas taxes may be inadequate to cover the costs of state highways, and that Missouri should be looking to alternate sources of money.
“Something’s going to have to happen when you have more and more efficiency,” Woodell said after pulling his car over at the Wright City rest area. “We’re doing things by gas tax. So either the gas tax has got to go way up or we’re going to have to do a use-type (tax). The details always matter. But something has to happen.”
Transportation expert Joshua Schank said the idea of placing tolls on a highway without taking a more systematic approach to transportation funding is “problematic.” He said that some states have successfully raised gasoline taxes.
For its part, Missouri has one of the lowest gas taxes in the United States.
“You’ve got to pay for things somehow,” said Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. “There’s no free lunch, and roads cost money.
“I think that often gets lost in the bigger-picture discussion.”