Missouri proposal seeks toll roads

| 12/3/2004

Legislation filed this week in the Missouri Senate would enable the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission to fund, build and operate toll roads and bridges.

The issue is expected to be a priority during the legislative session that kicks off Jan. 5.

The initiative, introduced by Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, is contingent upon the approval of an amendment to the state constitution.

The Missouri Constitution currently doesn’t allow the use of state funds to build toll roads. Changing the constitution would require a public vote after legislative approval. Even if approved by voters, there would still be 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 in its transportation-spending bill expected to pass next year.

Bartle filed his tolling proposal – SB31 – Dec. 1, a few weeks after Missouri highway officials expressed interest to adding tolls to Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is looking to raise revenue for badly needed improvements.

Officials are considering tolls as high as $10 for motorists and $22.50 for truck drivers to cross the state on I-70. Bartle’s proposal caps the fee at $5 for all drivers.

The 250-mile stretch would be dotted by four to six tollbooths between the two metropolitan areas. Money generated from the tolls would be used to rebuild the interstate and expand it to six lanes statewide. The interstate is now four lanes through most of the state.

Missouri Department of Transportation officials contend a toll might be the best, if not the only, way to fund additional lanes on the interstate.

Proponents of toll roads have tried for years to make them an option in Missouri, but voters rejected the concept in 1970 and 1992. That’s as far as highway officials have gotten. They’ve asked for tolling authority each of the past three years, but lawmakers have refused to let it advance to the ballot.

In response, MoDOT has tweaked its latest effort to ask for tolling only one road.

The department is considering an “open toll” system in which travelers would only be required to pay when they go through the booth, and not every time they get on and off the interstate.

“The idea is to get the traffic that’s going all the way across the state,” not the local traffic, Linda Wilson, an agency spokeswoman, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

--Keith Goble, state legislative editor