Funding Missouri's interstates
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Funding Missouri's interstates

Date: December 17, 2008
By: Juana Summers
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's first interstate, Interstate 70, has become one of the state's largest transportation problems.

The highly trafficked interstate, that sees an average of 35,000 vehicles each day, is in need of repair to sustain such high traffic, ensure driver safety and reduce highway congestion according to state officials. In Missouri's most populated areas, as many as 100,000 vehicles travel I-70.

Over the years, however, legislators and Missouri voters either have defeated or cast aside various proposals to address the congestion -- proposals that have ranged from toll roads to tax increases.

The vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee -- Sen. John Grieshimer, R-Washington -- said the amount of traffic that I-70 carries in the state of Missouri makes repairing the interstate a crucial priority. 

In recent years, a couple of legislators have proposed expanding the full length of I70 from St. Louis to Kansas City into an eight-lane super highway, which separate lanes for trucks.

The cost of adding four total lanes could be as much as $3.5 billion, according to Bob Brendel, spokesman for the Missouri Transportation Department.  That's money the Department doesn't have available, though it allocates $100 million each year to interstate maintenance.  The legislative plan would have asked Missouri voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to cover the costs.

"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.

But those who work in Missouri's transportation industry say that though the state's facing tough economic times -- a more than $340 million shortfall and potentially severe budget cuts -- Missouri's interstates should be a priority. Tom Crawford, president of the trucking industry's Missouri Motor Carriers Association said the proposals are expensive, but crucial.

"Our infrastructure is very expensive. It's a challenge that most folks are not wanting to hit head-on because when you talk about the different funding options, none of them are positive," Crawford said. "The bottom line is that it's going to cost more money to put any kind of highway infrastructure together."

Crawford said that investing in Missouri's transportation infrastructure could actually help support Missouri's faltering economy.

"Its one of the investments that kind of underpins all of the economic activity that goes on," he said. "If you look at how our economy moves and folks are saying they don't go to the local stores anymore. That good, that service or whatever you're buying is coming over the roads, either by truck, pickup or car."

Harriett Richardson, a veteran truck driver of more than 15 years based in Kansas City, said that while infrastructure changes could help make Missouri's highways safer, it's a moot point unless drivers are better educated about how truck drivers operate.

"We are responsible for the 'little guys,' anybody that's smaller than we are. We're responsible for them. people don't take into consideration that we can't stop like a car," she said.

She said that intermittently truck-only lanes could help, but when trucks change lanes or interact with other drivers that want to pass them, it still proves a problem.

"They run past us on the right and the left, that's the first thing they do when a big truck puts their blinker on, so that makes it even harder."

So far, funding proposals  for immediate repairs to the interstates have been discussed, and in some cases proposed, but there's been no solution.

With the start of the legislative session drawing near state Sen. Matt Bartle, a Lee's Summit Republican, prefiled legislation that would allow the Missouri Department of Transportation to construct and maintain toll roads, as a mechanism of funding these transportation projects.

The toll-road idea, has had little traction in the state legislature since 1992 when Missouri voters decisively rejected the idea.

Another option for funding the reconstruction for Missouri's interstates is raising sales taxes to fill in the gaps in the budget.  In 2007, chairs of the state's House and Senate transportation committees proposed sales tax increases to fund interstate expansion.

The one-cent per dollar increase was projected to raise $7.3 billion during 10 years, which would have been enough to fund expansion for both I-70 and I-44.  The proposals, sponsored in both the House and Senate in 2007, would have required voter approval statewide. Neither proposal was approved by committee for a full chamber debate.  A similar proposal in the Senate in 2008 also stalled in committee.

Meanwhile, studies continue to conclude the state needs to do something about Missouri's main, cross-state interstate. 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.

But aside from congestion, the growing traffic flow also poses an additional issue of safety.

Crawford, with the Missouri Motor Carriers Association, said when cars and larger commercial trucks share the same roadways, the potential for severe accidents is greater because of the differences in stopping distance and the behaviors of both types of drivers.  Discussed renovations, Crawford said, could help lessen the number of incidents.

"Any time you can get the two traffic patterns separated and limit their interaction, i think it's going to improve safety on our highways overall," he 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, he 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 state's Transportation Department, 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."

Interstate 44, that stretches from the city of St. Louis to Tulsa, Okla., is also a priority for Missouri's lawmakers and the state's drivers. Brendel said I-44 is about ten years behind I-70 in terms of traffic levels.

"It's carrying about the level of traffic that I-70 was carrying 10 years ago," Brendel said.

But unlike I-70, there have been no clear proposals for renovating I-44, Brendel said.  The Transportation Department is in the process of completing an environmental study on the highway to determine the needs relative to the traffic flow. 

Brendel said that study would be finished later this year.  He anticipates the interstate's problems would be similar to those faced by I-70.