I-70 toll bridge effort advances in Missouri

| 3/13/2006

A Missouri House panel has approved a bill that would allow tolls on a proposed Interstate 70 bridge across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.

The House Transportation Committee unanimously endorsed the bill – HB1380 – that would allow Missouri to partner with private business to pay for, build and operate a new $910 million 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 interchange in Missouri.

Missouri Transportation 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 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 said they have the money for their share, 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.

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.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, warned the effort could lead to wider pursuit in the state of private partnerships.

“This is nothing more than a back door 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.”

The bill’s next stop is the full House. A similar effort in the Senate, SB938, is awaiting consideration before the full Senate.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor