Missouri lawmakers turn down state-run toll roads

| 5/31/2006

A legislative effort in the Missouri General Assembly that would have eliminated a couple of barriers to toll roads and bridges from being built in the state has died. Legislators, however, did approve a bill that would allow a private group to operate a proposed Interstate 70 bridge across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.

The failed initiative, SB652, by Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, would have enabled the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission to fund, build and operate toll roads and bridges, specifically, on I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.

It was contingent upon the approval of an amendment to the Missouri Constitution. With that in mind, Bartle also sought a joint resolution – SJR24 – to amend the state constitution to grant the highway commission the authority needed.

Both efforts remained in the Senate Transportation Committee when the session ended this month, effectively killing them for a year.

The state’s 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. Missouri already has been given approval to proceed with existing interstate facilities – such as I-70 – that cannot otherwise be adequately maintained or improved.

The legislature’s decision to let a private group operate the proposed bridge in St. Louis is a way around the state’s constitutional requirement for a statewide vote on tolling roads and bridges.

Sponsored by Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, the measure would allow Missouri to partner with private business – possibly a foreign group – to pay for, build and operate a new bridge in St. Louis that would carry I-70 traffic over the river.

Officials in Illinois would need to agree on similar rules in their state to go through with the project. During the recently completed regular legislative session in Illinois, lawmakers expressed little or no interest in tolling the bridge.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor