By Keith Goble
state legislative editor
The Missouri House has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow tolls on a proposed Interstate 70 bridge across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.
House lawmakers voted 128-27 to advance a bill that would allow Missouri to partner with private businesses to pay for, build and operate a new $910 million bridge in St. Louis.
The new bridge is expected to relieve congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge, which carries traffic from Interstates 55, 64 and 70. More than 120,000 vehicles cross the Poplar Street Bridge daily.
Plans call for building an eight-lane bridge, relocating I-70 in Illinois and constructing an I-70 interchange in Missouri.
Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn said the long-delayed bridge project has a price tag of just less than $1 billion,The Associated Press reported.
A recently scaled-back design still requires the states to come up with $671 million for the work. Congress has earmarked $239 million for the project.
Officials in Illinois have said they have their share. They would rather tap "conventional methods" such as state and federal funds - not tolls - to pay for the bridge. But Rahn and others in the Missouri General Assembly say tolling seems to be the only way the Show-Me State can come up with its share.
"The money is just not there to build this bridge without a toll," House Transportation Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, told The AP.
Opponents say that tolls aren't the answer.
"I don't think toll roads - or bridges - promote economic development in Missouri," Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, toldLand Line. "They simply stifle economic development."
Pratt said the state would be better served addressing how to better manage funding already available.
"The better solution is to make sure we are spending our transportation money the best way possible. It would be a positive step to quit putting money into bureaucracies and big buildings for MoDOT," Pratt said.
The Missouri Department of Transportation previously has pushed for a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would give the department the authority to build and operate toll roads. But the measure has failed to advance, partly because voters historically have not been receptive to tolling proposals.
Authorizing a private partnership, however, would not need to be in the form of a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide vote, The AP reported. The tolls would be up to the private entity to collect.
Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president, warned the effort could lead to wider pursuit in the state of private partnerships.
"This is nothing more than a backdoor way of putting the state's highways up for sale to the highest bidder," Spencer said. "Lawmakers shouldn't do that. And they especially shouldn't do that without a vote of constituents."
At press time, the bill - HB1380 - was in the Senate. If approved there, it would move to Gov. Matt Blunt's desk for his signature.
Rep. Tom Villa, D-St. Louis, told The AP the state's inability to pay for such an important project proves that Missouri's 17-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel and gasoline aren't high enough to pay for road and bridge work throughout the state.
St. Onge agreed that higher fuel taxes will be needed to pay for future transportation needs.