I-70 toll bridge effort moves forward in Missouri

| 4/3/2006

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

House lawmakers voted 128-27 Thursday, March 30, to advance a bill 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 a little less than $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. 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 The AP.

Opponents say that tolls aren’t the answer.

“I don’t think toll roads, or bridges, promote economic development in Missouri,” Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, told Land Line. “They simply stifle economic development.”

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.

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 – HB1380 – has been sent to the Senate for further consideration. If approved, it would move to Gov. Matt Blunt’s desk for his signature.

Rep. Tom Villa, D-St. Louis, told The AP the state’s inability to pay for such an important project proves that Missouri’s 17-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel and gasoline aren’t high enough to pay for road and bridge work throughout the state.

St. Onge agreed that higher fuel taxes will be needed to pay for future transportation needs.

To view the House vote on HB1380, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor