JEFFERSON CITY - Missing from the transportation plan currently on cruise control in the state legislature is toll roads, a revenue generator that Gov. Bob Holden said motorists do not endorse.
The $670 million, Democrat-sponsored plan would boost the state's transportation budget through a series of tax hikes. This year is the one, lawmakers said, to find money for the state's ailing roads and bridges.
Toll roads would accomplish what the state wants - more money for new, not existing, roads. But Holden said Missourians do not want tolls, even if it means continued decay to what several research groups have said are among the worst highways in the country.
"Tolls do not have public support at this time," Holden said. "We're trying to make a plan that we can pass."
But toll roads have been hailed some as a savior. Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, said toll roads are "the wave of the future in transporation."
In the aftermath of a Washington, D.C.-based research group report declaring Missouri's roads the second-worst in the nation, Holden has heeded the requests of state Department of Transportation officials. His plan calls for more transportation money - $620 million a year more - mainly in the form of gasoline and tax increases.
Underscoring the urgency of action, Holden said next year's exodus of nearly half the state legislature, forced out by term limits, will muck up the progress of getting a bill passed in 2002 and beyond.
"If we don't do it, we'll have to wait until 2009 or 2010," Holden said. "We're going to have a lot of new people in 2002 and 2003."
Missouri's budget is tighter than usual, lawmakers said, and toll roads would bring in more money for new roads without increasing taxes. Toll roads are proposed in both the House and Senate this year, as they have been each year since 1998.
"My sense is a toll roads is a very practical way to build a road," said Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, a sponsor of two Senate toll road measures. "It's a very democratic plan."
Sandwiched between Illinois and Kansas, two states with hundreds of miles of toll roads, Missouri is one of 24 states that do not have toll roads. Both states spend more per mile of road than Missouri does and enjoy better quality roads, according to the report.
The governor said he considered toll roads in formulating his recent transportation funding plan, but he said they would fail before a vote of the people.
Loudon said toll roads are a more direct way to get the money.
"I think it's an important tool we ought to be considering, and definitely not precluding," Loudon said. "Roads ought to be one of our top priorities. We are using those user fees and applying them directly to roads."
Roads are crumbling, transportation officials have said repeatedly. Interstate 70 is almost 20 years overdue for structural repair, said Department spokesman Jeff Briggs. Despite boasting the nation's seventh largest highway system, Missouri spends less money on its roads per mile than 44 other states.
Department officials said I-70 is in need of a $2 billion, 199-mile makeover.
The department, pointing to an annual budget shortfall of $1 billion, endorses toll roads as a revenue source, Briggs said.
But the department does not favor toll roads specifically over other funding sources. The department "likes having the option open," Briggs said, but would prefer a more "traditional" source of funding.
"Our preference would be to find things the traditional way," Briggs said, "which is state revenue. That way we could get projects going right away."
That traditional way would come from tax hikes, something state Republican lawmakers have vowed to kill. Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said Senate Republicans will not support a tax increase.
Another department official said tolls would allow lawmakers to look at new ways of raising money for roads.
"Part of the solution is if we remove the barriers to toll roads," Pat Bell, chief financial officer of the department, said.
Toll road officials from around the country sing the praises of their advantages.
"More and more states are starting to use them," said Anil Schuster, director of the New Jersey-based International Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "They find the gas tax revenues are insufficient to meet their needs. Toll roads provide a very direct user tax."
Schuster said more money is directly available, and tolls save drivers' lives and cars in the long run.
"Toll roads tend to be safer than other roads," Schuster said. "There are better services, fewer stops, maybe a circuitous route."