Steve Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, describes the condition of Interstate 70 as teeth rotting at the roots, but covered by a nice veneer.
"It might look good for a short period of time, but your teeth are going to fall out. That's exactly where we sit with I- 70," said Miller, who came to St. Louis on Monday to talk with local leaders about the "Road to Tomorrow" initiative being undertaken by the Missouri Department of Transportation to get ideas for "innovative technologies and innovative funding mechanisms" to improve the interstate.
Miller said the first portions of Interstate 70 were built in 1957 and that interstate highways have a "useful life" of about 50 years, meaning that life for the road ended in 2007.
He said drivers see a relatively smooth top layer of asphalt, but it's a different tale below the interstate.
"Underneath that, the substructure that supports that roadway is completely falling apart," he said. "It is used up."
Miller said 60 percent of the state's population lives within 30 miles of I-70, with 60 percent of the state's jobs also in that same corridor.
MoDOT has made no secret of the financial shortfall that looms, and this year approved "Missouri’s 325 System," in which the state will use that $325 million to maintain 8,000 miles of primary roads such as interstates.
The remaining 26,000 miles of roads will see limited routine maintenance. Snow will be plowed, potholes will be filled and traffic signals will be kept running, but little else will be done. Those roads include Lindbergh Boulevard, Gravois Road, Olive Street/Clarkson Road, and Highways 94, K and 109.
MoDOT has reduced its workforce by 20 percent, disposed of more than 750 pieces of equipment and sold 124 facilities since 2011 for savings of more than $605 million, the agency said.
Without any growth in state revenues, Missouri will not be able to match available federal transportation funds by fiscal year 2017. Missouri can match $1 of state funds with $4 of federal funds.
So belt-tightening leaves little room for the kind of project needed for Interstate 70, Miller said.
"We know about tollways and I think tollways remain a viable option that's out there," he said of paying for the roadwork needed on Interstate 70. "But the idea of the 'Road to Tomorrow' is intended to see if we can identify revenue sources other than tollways."
Miller said one idea came from a young Missouri entrepreneur who sees the future of highway building not as putting down concrete or asphalt on site, but instead manufacturing panels in a factory that are 8 feet long 13 feet wide that snap into place.
Each panel would be embedded with fiber or electric cables for GPS systems that could be used by commercial truckers or autonomous vehicles, and paid for through a subscription service.
Whatever method is chosen, Miller stressed the need for something big to be done.
"We literally have to tear up I-70 down to the bare ground and begin again," he said.
To learn more or to submit and idea, click here for the "Road to Tomorrow" website.