Highway reform bills under consideration in Missouri

| 12/19/2003

A crumbling road system and embattled highway department have Missouri state lawmakers ready to pursue toll roads and several reform measures when they return to the Capitol in January.

The Missouri Department of Transportation maintains about 32,000 miles of roads, the seventh-largest state highway system in the nation, The Associated Press reported. The state's roads are in the third-worst condition nationally, and its state-maintained bridges are tied for 12th worst in the nation.

“Transportation is going to be a huge issue next year,” Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, told The Kansas City Star. Bartle is sponsoring a resolution to get rid of the six-member highway commission responsible for roads in the state and replace it with a governor-appointed director of transportation.

“Now is the time to make things happen,” Bartle said.

Taking a toll
Proponents of toll roads have tried for years to make them an option in Missouri, and they're hoping voters who rejected the concept in 1970 and 1992 are ready to embrace it now. But first, they must persuade the General Assembly to place the issue on the ballot.

Last year, a $500 million annual transportation plan that would have raised taxes but did not call for tolling drivers was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.

A citizen advisory panel appointed after the 2002 vote recommended state officials again pursue tolls as a source of revenue for highway upgrades. The issue is expected to be a priority during the legislative session that starts Jan. 7.

“I think conditions on our roadways have changed enough that people are looking for some solution, some even small way to effect a change to improve our roads,” Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, told The AP. Harris is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment – HJR31 – that would give the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission the authority to build and operate toll roads.

Two similar proposals – HB857 and SB855 – would authorize the highway commission to fund, build and operate toll roads and bridges. The measures are contingent upon the approval of a constitutional amendment.

The state Transportation Department also has made toll roads a legislative priority for the upcoming session.

MoDOT is looking at four primary tolling possibilities, including Interstates 70 and 44, the new bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis, a companion bridge for Kansas City's Paseo Bridge, which carries Interstates 35 and 29 over the Missouri River, and the U.S. 71 Arkansas bypass in southwestern Missouri.

In May 2002, the department completed its first phase of a toll road feasibility study. Estimated tolls included a $22.50 fee for commercial vehicles traveling Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis. Motorists would pay $10.

The Missouri Constitution currently doesn't allow the use of state funds to build toll roads. Changing the constitution would require a public vote.

Even if approved by voters, there are still obstacles to overcome.

For state-run roads, there could be legislation on specific projects to make use of the tolling authority. But for interstates, it's more complex.

Federal law prohibits enacting tolls on interstates that are now toll-free; however, a state can ask the Federal Highway Administration to toll an interstate as a pilot project.

Congress is considering eliminating the restriction as it finalizes its transportation-spending bill.

MoDOT reform
A proposed constitutional amendment – SJR34 – from Sen. Bartle would put a Cabinet-level transportation director in charge of MoDOT. Currently, the department is overseen by a commission appointed by the governor but does not answer directly to him or the General Assembly.

The commission has been a target of criticism since its 1998 decision to drop a 15-year road plan adopted just six years earlier along with a tax increase. The commission determined it was too underfunded to fulfill and replaced it with a funding plan that increased money going to the Kansas City and St. Louis areas at the expense of the rest of the state.

Gov. Bob Holden supports a change.

“The department director should be appointed by and report to the governor, because the governor in the eyes of the public is the one that they hold accountable,” Holden told The Star.

Holden said he would ask for legislation to keep the highway commission as an advisory board instead of abolishing it.