Nixon’s toll road proposal might face rough path forward

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Among decision makers and people involved in the transportation industry in Missouri, there really is no debate over whether the state’s major highways are in need of repair.

The newest sections of Interstate 70 — a road that spans across mid-Missouri connecting the state’s two largest metropolises, St. Louis and Kansas City — were constructed in the 1960s and “designed to meet road standards and traffic volumes of an earlier day,” as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon described it on Tuesday. It is traveled more than any other road in the state, and after years of repairs, its base is not what it used to be.

The question of whether there is a need for transportation infrastructure improvements, particularly to Interstate 70, is widely agreed upon.

The question that had divided politicians and the people they represent is how to pay for it.

Missouri voters rejected a proposal in August that aimed to raise nearly $6 billion in sales tax revenue over 10 years. About half of that would have gone to improving Interstate 70, while the other half was aimed at smaller, more local priorities in an effort to entice statewide support. It did not, and now officials are back at page one.

On Tuesday, Nixon, a Democrat, penned a letter to the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission asking it to report back to him on the idea of using tolls to pay for Interstate 70 upgrades. That, he said, could free up existing money for other projects for the agency that he said will soon reach a “critical juncture” in its funding.

“Across the country, states have utilized private sector-based solutions, such as those involving tolls or public-private partnerships, to address significant transportation needs like I-70,” Nixon wrote. “The potential of such solutions is worthy of exploration as we continue a robust discussion regarding our transportation needs and options to pay for them.”

State Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, said he does not buy into the notion that more funding for Interstate 70 could lead to more funding for transportation projects throughout the state. In fact, Lant, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he thinks it could actually deplete resources if drivers avoid it by using other parallel routes that are available.

“My fear is that a toll road on Interstate 70 is going to do nothing other than move traffic down to Highway 50 and Highway 36,” he said. “If they toll Interstate 70, you’ll destroy” them, he charged. “Where does the money come to repair that?”

“It becomes a snake swallowing its tail,” Lant said. “I don’t think doing a toll road on Interstate 70 is going to free up money to do diddly.”

Lant said he is not for a toll there, nor is he for tolls anywhere — even if they would pay for improvements to improve an incomplete part of Interstate 49 in his own district.

“I don’t see that it is going to be the solution to the problem,” he said.

Keith Lindquist, the presiding commissioner in McDonald County, said he has never been a fan of tolls, either. But Friday, he said that perhaps the time may have come to consider them as an option for completing the Missouri stretch of the Bella Vista bypass.

“I would like to think there would be a better way for something like that, but I know MoDOT is not in a good financial situation,” he said, noting the funding problem the Missouri Department of Transportation is facing with less money from the federal government and declining revenue from the state’s gasoline tax.

“Maybe it’s time,” he said, to take a look at it.

Arkansas officials several years ago discussed a toll as one option to build its share of the bypass, but in 2012 voters approved a half-cent sales tax for a number of major transportation projects, including two lanes of the bypass.

Lindquist said completion of the bypass — for which MoDOT has already has acquired the land — would be an economic boon for Southwest Missouri, as well as make travel safer for motorists going to and through Northwest Arkansas.

“It’d be huge for everybody. It’s so congested on (Interstate) 49 right now,” he said.

Lindquist said a toll road that would set aside money for maintenance but that would sunset when the road is paid for would be the ideal option.

Tom Crawford, president of the Missouri Trucking Association, said flatly: “We’re anti-toll road.”

The idea of having to hassle with tolls, he said, is the “one idea that gets my members riled up the most.”

Crawford, whose organization represents companies like the Joplin-based Con-way Truckload, said he, like Lant, still supports a combination of gas and sales tax increases, but is open to other ideas. Just not tolls.

“It is an inefficient way of collecting road money. You’re looking at a minimum of 15 to 20 percent off the top. Those dollars go to the administration of the program,” he said. “The other part of it that gets our folks going is it causes a lot of diversion, and ends up with traffic on roads that aren’t designed for that kind of traffic. It is human nature to find a way around it if you can.”

Crawford, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., said Missouri might do well for itself to consider an idea being mulled there: an infrastructure bank. Members of Congress there have toyed with the idea of allowing companies to repatriate money that they have kept overseas by purchasing bonds from the bank. The sale of those bonds would go to funding transportation projects.

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