Over the Fourth of July weekend in Colorado, I noticed digital signs along Denver-area roads and at the airport with the same message: Celebrate 25 years with ExpressToll.
ExpressToll is the electronic toll system on some of the state’s toll roads, including the E-470. Tolls range from $1.20 to $2.60 for cars along the road, and are automatically deducted from a prepaid account. Big trucks such as tractor-trailers, and those without such an account, pay more.
The debate in Missouri about whether to add tolls on state roads has been going on decades longer than ExpressToll has existed — voters twice since 1970 have rejected constitutional amendments to allow state toll roads and bridges.
Missouri lawmakers had OK’d the use of tolls, as well as a public-private partnership, to build the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2014. But Illinois wouldn’t agree to tolling, and the idea was scrapped.
No tax dollars were used to build Colorado’s E-470, which doesn’t get federal or state funding, according to ExpressToll. The road has $1.6 billion in bond debt that’s scheduled to be paid off in 2041.
It’s a different story in Missouri, where tolls on the taxpayer-funded Interstate 70 have been floated for years. Arguments against adding tolls include that the interstate already has been paid for with tax dollars, and that a toll would be double taxation.
The state has federal provisional permission to toll on Interstate 70 between Wentzville and Independence, but that expires at the end of this year, said Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
McKenna is familiar with tolls. In New Hampshire, where he served as deputy commissioner of the state’s transportation department, toll roads generate about $120 million a year.
To get the federal government to approve an extension for the authority to toll here, Missouri officials must show that progress is being made toward putting a toll system in place.
McKenna hopes to get that extension, he said Thursday after a meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission in St. Louis.
Toll roads were not discussed at that meeting, but McKenna has been asked about them since taking over the helm of MoDOT late last year. At a November news conference announcing his hiring, he said no funding ideas should be taken off the table when asked about toll roads.
He repeated that view on Thursday, saying all revenue options should be considered.
“They coexist pretty well,” he said of how toll roads function with highways without tolls. “People use them and they’re often in better shape because there’s more resources put into them.”
Although the highways commission approved $3.97 billion in construction work over the next five years and MoDOT’s financial forecast is brighter than in previous years, worries remain about funding future transportation projects.
MoDOT plans to continue with its plan to dip heavily into its cash reserves to secure federal matching funds in coming years. And it says it still doesn’t have the money needed to reconstruct Interstate 70, which has been described by a commission member as teeth rotting at the roots, but covered by a veneer.
McKenna stressed the need for pushing for more funding for “aspirational work.”
In the past, MoDOT has said that a toll rate would be determined by traffic and revenue studies done as part of private-sector proposals. Toll roads would need legislative approval.
Gov. Jay Nixon said in 2014 that implementing tolls on Interstate 70 to rebuild a roughly 200-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from Wentzville to Independence at a cost of $2 billion to $4 billion deserved serious consideration.
What the next governor, whomever that may be, and future legislatures will support remains to be seen.
Weigh in on Boone Bridge project
MoDOT wants to get your thoughts on its work on the Boone Bridge and is asking those who use it to complete a survey.
The agency built a new eastbound bridge, and rehabbed the old 1980s-era eastbound bridge for westbound traffic.
The eastbound lanes opened to traffic in June of last year, followed by the westbound lanes in early November. A new bicycle/pedestrian trail on the upstream side of the bridge opened last month.
The survey is six questions, which include how satisfied you are with the bridge and if it was the right “transportation solution.” It also seeks responses on whether the bridge is safer, less congested and easier to travel.