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Rahn urges I-70 overhaul

February 07, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Transportation Department Director Pete Rahn called for Interstate 70 to be rebuilt "from the ground up" on Tuesday, while conceding there is currently no way to pay for the project's $3.5 billion price tag.

The reconstruction of the interstate highway that connects Columbia with Kansas City and St. Louis was one of the key measures of Rahn's State of Transportation Address, which was delivered in front of a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly.

And he gave lawmakers a sobering prediction about the highway's future.

"The congestion on I-70 presents safety concerns, could affect productivity and has damaged this vital highway all the way to its core," Rahn said. "By 2030, the entire length of I-70 will be stop-and-go traffic and I-44 is just ten years behind."

Rahn said I-70 needs to be expanded in order to accommodate heavy traffic and larger vehicles. He said the current funding structure would only allow for the highway to be rebuilt "one short section at a time."

"That method will mean none of us will be alive to see its completion," he said.

After the speech, Rahn said while there are no means to fund the reconstruction right now, it must be done.

"Hopefully, we don't have to reach a crisis on I-70 before the public decides that we need to do something about it," he said.

In his legislative address, Rahn did not mention the possibility of using tolls to finance I-70's reconstruction, but he did address the issue at his later news conference.

"I think, eventually tolls will be in every state in the United States...Eventually there will be toll roads in Missouri," Rahn said. "But the question is it going to be sooner or is it going to be later. and given the environment today, I'd say it's going to be later."

Twice in recent decades, Missourians have rejected authorizing toll roads -- in 1992 and 1970.

Rahn added I-70 wasn't the only major highway in need of repair.

"I-44 is ten years behind, he said. "The amount of truck traffic, for instance, on I-44 is only 2 percentage points behind I-70."

Minority Floor Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he was pleased that Rahn mentioned the issue in his speech.

"As anybody who drives I-70 knows that it's an embarrassment, it's dangerous and it's an impediment to economic development," Harris said. "But I think everyone who drives on those roads is looking for a plan from the experts as to how we can improve that road."

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said Rahn was trying to tell lawmakers that the reconstruction of I-70 should be a priority.

"He's just telling us, 'ladies and gentlemen, this is something we need to do, if you want to get it done in the next 100 years, come up with an additional source of revenue,'" Robb said. "I thought that was pretty straightforward."

Robb said if it was possible, he wouldn't mind making I-70 a toll road. He said he agrees with Rahn that lawmakers need to start looking for sources of revenue now.

"Get that on the table, make it an agenda item and start looking at what the alternatives are and what possible funding sources might be available," he said. "There aren't any currently in place, we perhaps need to be very creative and perhaps even looking into an increase in the motor fuel tax."

Harris said he floated the idea of implementing tolls for I-70 to "get the discussion started." But he said the public isn't ready for them to be put in place.

"What we need is that type of creative thinking and creative ideas from the experts in the field, mainly the people at MoDOT as to how we comprehensively improve our roads in this state," Harris said.

At other points of his speech, Rahn touted the agency's ability to pursue smoother roads in faster time.

"An improved road saves lives, creates jobs and makes travel more efficient for millions of drivers," he said.

Rahn also pressed lawmakers to approve a 4 percent across-the-board pay increase for "dedicated state employees" and to establish a "public/private partnership" to construct an I-70 river bridge connecting St. Louis to Illinois that would be financed by tolls. He also signed off on a primary seat belt law.

"I realize this issue may not be universally popular," Rahn said. "But I feel a moral obligation to appeal to you once again for a primary seat belt law. Not because it is necessarily popular, but because it is right."

Robb commended Rahn as an appointment that turned out to be "almost too good to be true."

"Peter's the real deal," he said.

Harris said he's still waiting for a comprehensive consensus plan to improve the state's roads and said Rahn has a done a "decent" job so far.

"But certainly, we have to pave our roads with something more than good intentions," Harris said.