SPECIAL REPORT: I-70 toll bridge effort gains approval in Missouri

| 5/12/2006

The Missouri General Assembly wrapped up their work for the year Friday, May 12, but not before approving a bill that would allow tolls on a proposed Interstate 70 bridge across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.

House lawmakers voted 134-23 to accept Senate changes to the bill. It now heads to Gov. Matt Blunt's desk for his signature.

Sponsored by Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, the measure would allow Missouri to partner with private business - possibly a foreign group - to pay for, build and operate a new bridge in St. Louis that would carry Interstate 70 traffic over the river.

The new bridge is expected to relieve traffic on the Poplar Street Bridge, which carries traffic from Interstates 55, 64 and 70. More than 120,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.

Plans call for building an eight-lane bridge, relocating I-70 in Illinois and constructing an I-70 north interchange in Missouri.

Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn said the long-delayed bridge project is expensive and has a price tag of $910 million. The bridge itself would cost $355 million, the price tag on the Missouri I-70 interchange another $213 million, and the Illinois portion of I-70 roadways and approaches would total $342 million, theEdwardsville Intelligencer reported.

Congress has earmarked $239 million for the work while the states are responsible for $671 million.

Officials in Illinois said they have the money for 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 lawmakers before the vote. "This is the logical first step."

Opponents say that tolls aren't the answer.

"I don't think toll roads, or bridges, are the answer to fixing Missouri roads," Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, told Land Line.

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.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, agreed. Spencer said the vote was unfortunate because it fails to address serious questions about how to pay for transportation projects.

"Once again elected officials have opted to dodge the serious structural issues with highway funding. In lieu of making intelligent planning and spending options, they simply opted to put our transportation infrastructure up for bid," Spencer said.

The Missouri Department of Transportation previously has pushed consideration of 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 from the Legislature, 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.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor