I-70 toll bridge effort collects OK in Missouri

| 7/10/2006

Charging truckers and others to cross the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri recently moved one step closer to reality when Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt signed a bill into law.

Blunt’s approval of the effort came two days after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he has no interest in charging a toll to traverse the proposed bridge. Blagojevich also said the project was overpriced.

The new law, previously HB1380, allows the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission to partner with private business – possibly a foreign group – to pay for, build and operate a new 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 north interchange in Missouri.

Missouri Transportation Director Pete Rahn said the long-delayed bridge project is expensive and has a price tag of $910 million. The bridge itself would cost $355 million, the price tag on the Missouri I-70 interchange another $213 million, and the Illinois portion of I-70 roadways and approaches would total $342 million, the Edwardsville Intelligencer reported.

Congress has earmarked $239 million for the work while the states are responsible for $671 million.

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. Supporters 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 lawmakers as the bill made its way through the statehouse. “This is the logical first step.”

Opponents say that tolls aren’t the answer.

“I don’t think toll roads, or bridges, are the answer to fixing Missouri roads,” Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, told Land Line.

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.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, agreed. Spencer said the decision to advance the tolling idea was unfortunate because it fails to address serious questions about how to pay for transportation projects.

“Once again, elected officials have opted to dodge the serious structural issues with highway funding. In lieu of making intelligent planning and spending options, they simply opted to put our transportation infrastructure up for bid,” Spencer 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 General Assembly, 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 Associated Press reported. The tolls would be up to the private entity to collect.

After signing the bill, Blunt said he wants to meet with Blagojevich and talk about the toll issue.

“Smart people can come together and figure out a way to get this done,” Blunt said at the bill signing, The AP reported. “There’s a lot of options on the table.”

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor