Government & Politics

Gov. Jay Nixon tries to reverse opposition to I-70 tolls in Missouri

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is jumping into the debate about tolling, saying Interstate 70 should have tolls to raise funds for needed repairs. But many Missourians oppose tolling.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is jumping into the debate about tolling, saying Interstate 70 should have tolls to raise funds for needed repairs. But many Missourians oppose tolling. The Kansas City Star

Toll roads have never been popular in Missouri.

Seventy percent of voters rejected them in 1970.

Fifty-eight percent voted against them yet again in 1992.

Some Missouri lawmakers made an unsuccessful stab at imposing tolls on Interstate 70 in 2012.

Now, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is lending political muscle to tolling, a move that will stir up more debate but may not prove any more fruitful.

Nixon just received a report from the Missouri Department of Transportation examining options for levying tolls on I-70, an asphalt conveyor belt for commerce and one of the original legs of the country’s nearly 60-year-old interstate highway system.

Nixon’s involvement will undoubtedly elevate the debate over tolls on I-70, but whether he can reverse years of opposition is another matter.

“It’s been a very contentious issue,” said Ed DeSoignie, executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City — a group that sees tolls as a way of creating construction jobs.

There are several reasons toll roads could be politically difficult:

▪ The trucking industry opposes tolling. It argues tolls would pump too much money into administrative expenses instead of road work.

But the industry also fears it could bear a disproportionate cost of building the highway, driving up shipping costs that would eventually be shifted onto consumers.

“The tolling industry sees truckers as a rolling ATM,” said Tom Crawford, president of the Missouri Trucking Association.

▪ Small-town convenience store owners fear they will lose business because toll booths near their exits will drive traffic to free roads, causing them to bypass their shops.

▪ Opponents contend that charging tolls for an existing road such as I-70 amounts to double taxation. The interstate was already paid for when it was constructed many years ago. A toll is seen by some as a second tax.

While transportation advocates welcome Nixon to the tolling debate, they don’t expect to see tolls on I-70 anytime soon. There’s just too much work to sell the public on a funding strategy used in 28 states, they say.

“It’s still very, very difficult,” said Missouri transportation lobbyist Rodney Gray. “It’s still uphill.”

Tolling is still a foreign idea to many Missourians even though it’s used by neighbors in Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma. As of 2013, there were about 5,400 miles of toll roads in the United States, up from up 4,700 miles in 2003.

“If you can’t fit an explanation of an issue on a bumper sticker, it’s very hard to get across,” said state Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican and a supporter of tolling on I-70. “This is just one that will take some time to let people know it will be OK.”

Nevertheless, Nixon gets high marks from the Show-Me Institute, a conservative think tank that has backed the idea of toll roads.

“If the governor really puts the full force of his office behind it, I think a lot can be accomplished,” said David Stokes, who has studied transportation policy for the Show-Me Institute.

Supporters of toll roads like the idea because it charges just those who use the road. They say it is preferable to something such as a sales tax, which hits those who don’t even drive.

Some states have sold or leased highways to the private sector, which then puts up money to rebuild the road and recoups that investment through tolls. Missouri could take that approach.

As politically unsavory as tolling is in Missouri, it might be the last option left for rebuilding I-70 after voters this fall rejected a sales tax increase raising $5.4 billion over 10 years for transportation.

Missouri’s construction budget for roads and bridges has plunged to $685 million this year from about $1.3 billion annually as recently as 2009, partly because the state exhausted proceeds from a bond issue for upgrading roads.

The funding problem is compounded because revenue from the state’s gas tax has flattened as cars and trucks become more fuel efficient. And federal funding is threatening to run thin in the future as gas taxes dry up.

That leaves tolling as an option, something that the Obama administration has embraced nationally as an alternative way of paying for roads when money for new highway construction gets hard to find.

“Missouri’s transportation funding is approaching a critical juncture,” Nixon said in asking the transportation department to look at tolls.

Forming a belt across the country’s midsection from Utah to Maryland, I-70 is one of Missouri’s most pressing infrastructure needs, Nixon said. About 60 percent of the state’s population and jobs are located within 30 miles of I-70.

The 251-mile highway is bursting with traffic. Some stretches carry five to six times as much traffic as they were designed to handle many years ago, especially in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

The highway is in bad shape, too. Engineers back in 2001 estimated that anywhere from about 40 to 50 percent of the pavement between Kansas City and St. Louis is considered in “poor” or “very poor” condition.

Officials believe the highway is probably even in worse condition today despite surface treatments that might improve the ride in the short term. The state spends about $50 million to $60 million a year on maintaining I-70.

“What’s on top might look good, but what’s underneath only continues to deteriorate,” said highway department spokesman Bob Brendel.

The transportation department has considered various options for fixing I-70.

Plans range from a low end of $2 billion for replacing all the pavement and adding a third lane in each direction to a $4 billion deluxe version calling for segregated lanes for trucks.

The report submitted to Nixon indicated that it would cost between $20 and $30 for a car to travel across the state and generate the $2 billion needed to pay for minimum improvements to I-70. It would cost trucks $40 to $90.

What the final plan looks like depends on how the state wants to approach tolling. Does it go alone? Does it enlist the help of the private sector?

“If Missouri is serious about tolling, Missourians will have to understand what that means,” said Jewell Patek, a former state lawmaker who ran last fall’s campaign for the transportation tax. “How is that going to affect my traveling? What’s it going to cost? Is it going to make it safer?”

“If you don’t leave Missouri, you don’t even know what tolling looks like.”

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