Funding Missouri's Interstates
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Funding Missouri's Interstates

Date: October 7, 2008
By: Juana Summers
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Years after the debate begain, it's still unclear how Missouri lawmakers will fund proposals to expand one of the state's largest and most traveled highways.

Interstate 70, which stretches across the state of Missouri from Kansas City to Saint Louis, is the nation's first interstates.  And it has become one of the busiest.

In Missouri, along I-70, trucks make up between 21 and 32 percent of traffic,according to the Missouri Transportation Department.

Commercial trucks are involved in 28 percent of accidents along I-70, making separating commercial vehicles from passenger vehicles a popular, frequent proposal for dealing with I-70's problems. 

Chairs of the House and Senate Transportation committees proposed turning Interstate 70 into an eight-lane highway, with four lanes traveling in each direction.  Two lanes in each direction would be designated for trucks only. 

The amount of traffic that passes through Missouri on I-70 makes adding more lanes crucial, said Missouri Sen. John Grieshimer, vice chair for the Senate Transportation Committee. 

Each day an average of 35,000 vehicles travel across all of I-70.  In the state's most populated areas, near St. Louis and Kansas City, an average of 100,000 vehicles travel the interstate, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.

But the cost of adding four lanes could be as much as $3.5 billion, said Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri Transportation Department.

And currently, funding for that project, along with similar repairs proposed for I-44, is up in the air. 

"I-44 is about ten years behind I-70 in terms of traffic levels," Brendel said. "It's carrying about the level of traffic that I-70 was carrying 10 years ago."

Interstate 70  must be expanded to at least six lanes, with three lanes of traffic traveling in each direction, by 2016 in order to relieve highway congestion, according to TRIP, a highway-advocacy organization based in Washington DC. TRIP distributes data on highway and interstate transportation issues.

The 2006 report issued by TRIP also calls for a total of $10 billion in repairs to Missouri's interstates, including I-70 and I-44 by 2016 to avoid further deterioration or congestion of the interstate system.

There's no clear proposal for expanding or renovating I-44 on the table, Brendel said, because the Transportation Department has not completed an environmental study on the interstate yet.  But Brendel said that problems on the highway would likely be similar to those in play on I-70.

Brendel said a purpose and needs study that looks at I-44's current condition would be finished later this year.

In Missouri, I-44 stretches from St. Louis city to Tulsa, Okla.

Grieshmier said the popular truck-only lane proposal is costly, but could be more than the state is able to afford.

"Nobody has agreed to a valid funding proposal," he said. "It sounds great, but I don't think that we can afford it."

In 2007, the chairs of both the state House and Senate transportation committees proposed a voter-approved sales tax increase for interstate expansion.

The one-cent per dollar increase was projected to raise $7.3 billion over 10 years, which would have been enough to fund expansion for both I-70 and I-44.  The proposal would have required voter approval statewide, but never came up for a vote in the legislature.

One problem facing lawmakers has been past voter rejection of proposals that would have raised the kind of money needed for statewide interstate expansion.  In 1992, Missouri voters rejected toll roads.  And in 2002, voters rejected an increase in the gasoline tax.

Two years later, the legislature did win voter approval for a plan that provided a smaller boost in highway funding.  Amendment 3 requires that all taxes collected on fuel and automotive sales be earmarked for road improvements.  The constitutional change added an estimated $180 to $190 million annually to the money available for transportation needs, through the use of bonds. But Amendment 3 funds have run out, and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Bill Stouffer said it's time to look forward.

Now, eight years later, the Department of Transportation is again coming up short to fund transportation initiatives like those suggested for these major interstates.  Brendel said the Transportation Department does not have the funds to expand these interstates available, although $100 million each year is spent on interstate maintenance.

"Ultimately, those decisions on how Missourians want to fund their transportation system, and at what level, will be determined by others. We can identify the needs of the system and what it would take to get there, but we don't have that authority," Brendel said.

Now, Stouffer said Missouri's interstates still need help, and legislators will have to figure out where the money will come from.
 
But first, the Napton Republican said the government needs to reach out to voters.

To gain perspective on what Missouri's motorists want in terms of interstate expansion, representatives from the Department of Transportation, along with legislators, are traveling around the state holding focus groups to discuss transportation issues, with special focus on I-70 and I-44.

"Before you can get to funding, you have to find out what people want their transportation system to look like for the next 20 years," he said. "It's not just about I-70 and I-44.  we're looking at a transportation funding package."

But Stouffer said his inclination is the eight-lane proposal, including two truck-only lanes on each side of the interstate.  He said not only is this proposal the most cost-effective, it's also the safest.

"Separating cars and trucks means you're separating size," Stouffer said. "Vehicles of like size just go together."


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