Tolls on planned bridge gain key support in Missouri

| 12/6/2005

The Missouri House Transportation chairman said he would support a bill next year that could allow tolls on a long-planned Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis. He also said he would drop efforts to toughen the state’s seat-belt laws and promote lane restrictions for big trucks.

Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, said he likes a Missouri Department of Transportation proposal to allow the state to partner with a private group to fund, build and operate a proposed bridge that would connect to Interstate 70 in St. Louis.

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 interchange in Missouri.

MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said the long-delayed bridge project is expensive and has a price tag just under $1 billion, The Associated Press reported. A scaled-back design unveiled last month still requires the state to come up with $671 million for the work. Congress has earmarked $239 million for the project.

Officials in Illinois said they have the money for their share of the remainder, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. They would rather tap “conventional methods” such as state and federal funds – not tolls – to pay for the bridge. But Rahn said tolling seems to be the only way Missouri can come up with its share.

Rahn recently outlined the private financing option as part of the agency’s annual report to lawmakers.

MoDOT 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.

St. Onge also said there would be no push to adopt stricter seat-belt rules once lawmakers return for the regular session that begins in January. A proposal to implement primary enforcement was rejected this year in the House.

Existing Missouri law prohibits law enforcement officers to stop a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt. To issue seat-belt citations, drivers must be stopped for another traffic violation, such as speeding.

Instead of pushing primary seat-belt enforcement, St. Onge said he would focus on other safety issues, including more penalties for drivers who violate highway work zone rules and a ban on large trucks from driving in the far left lane on highways and interstates with three or more lanes in each direction.