Few disagree that Interstate 70 is old. It features what is widely considered the first segment of interstate highway system, in St. Charles County.
Congested? It was built for only half the cars and trucks that use it today in rural Missouri, and for just a small fraction of the vehicles that now use it near Kansas City and St. Louis.
But the idea that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is now revisiting — to rebuild and expand 200 miles of the highway by charging tolls — is sure to drum up another round of debate.
State lawmakers pondered tolls on I-70 in 2012. The idea went nowhere. Tolls were opposed by the trucking industry and gas station owners. Still are.
The previous chief of the Missouri Department of Transportation drew some fire when he suggested tolls could be imposed on I-70 without voter consent, because it would have involved a public-private partnership. The scenario floated at the time involved private-sector companies funding the project and collecting tolls to recoup their investment.
Since 1970, Missouri voters twice have rejected constitutional amendments to permit state toll roads and bridges.
One argument is that interstate highways already have been paid for through gasoline taxes, and that tolls would amount to double taxation. Another is that tolls would make Missouri less competitive than other states.
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission last week delivered a report to Nixon that said something has to be done. And soon.
Missouri transportation officials and those in other states have warned that highway money is tight. Last year, Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 7, which would have financed transportation improvements — including an I-70 reconstruction project — by raising the sales tax 0.75 percent.
Estimates in the report sent to the governor are that tolls would amount to $20 to $30 per car for a trip across Missouri on I-70, “and two to three times that for trucks.”
The report said a toll system on I-70 is “worthy of consideration” at a time when road-building funds are drying up nationwide.
Missouri is one of three states that have been authorized to place tolls on existing interstates. The other two states — Virginia and North Carolina — have not done so, and neither has Missouri.
In their report to Nixon, Missouri transportation officials suggested that other states have inquired about the so-far-unused authority to charge tolls, and the state may well lose that authority.
“Without a significant investment in Missouri’s infrastructure, life on I-70 will continue to degrade,” Missouri transportation officials reported. “Based on available resources, MoDOT will continue to resurface and maintain I-70 to the best of its ability. However, incidents and maintenance operations will increase causing lengthy backups.”
In addition, Nixon said, charging tolls on I-70 could free up funding for other transportation needs.
“Moving forward,” he said in a statement, “this report will help facilitate an informed, robust discussion about meeting our most pressing transportation infrastructure needs in a way that benefits all Missourians.”
Robust? Count on it.
MISSOURI HIGHWAYS A DEADLY PLACE
Another pedestrian was killed on a Missouri interstate highway last week. A 38-year-old man died after being struck by a vehicle while walking along westbound Interstate 70 near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Monday, officials said.
An October report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that from 1993 to 2012, Missouri and Wyoming saw the “highest proportion” of those states’ pedestrian fatalities occurring on interstate highways.
Slightly over 25 percent of Wyoming’s overall pedestrian fatalities occurred on interstate highways during that period, and 23.4 percent of Missouri’s pedestrian deaths were on interstates.
The report concluded that drivers who work on interstate highways, including emergency responders, maintenance crews and tow truck operators, “need to understand how dangerous it is to be working or walking around an active interstate.”
Private motorists should properly maintain their vehicles, the report added, to avoid becoming an unintended pedestrian should their cars break down along a major interstate.
Drivers who encounter mechanical problems or are involved in a noninjury crash should carefully move their vehicles as far from the traffic lanes as possible and “remain in their vehicle with seat belt secured until help arrives,” the report stated.
NEW DOWNTOWN RAMP OPENS TO I-44
In case you missed it: MoDOT opened the new ramp from downtown St. Louis to southbound Interstate 44 last week.
The ramp from southbound Memorial Drive gives drivers a new link to I-44 and on to Interstate 55 or the Poplar Street Bridge.
It is part of the “park over the highway” project included in the Gateway Arch grounds overhaul.