Lawmakers look at ways to pay to rebuild I-70

A proposal to convert Interstate 70 to a toll road could stimulate support for tax increases for transportation needs.

At a Senate committee hearing on the subject, groups which have not been too keen on higher taxes in the past now seem to prefer that to tolls.

Pushing sixty years of use while designed for 25, and with a daily vehicle count upwards of 40,000 while designed for half that, everyone agrees Interstate 70 needs a rebuild.

Senator Mike Kehoe is sponsoring toll roads as the lesser of several evils. The Missouri Department of Transportation's plan to privatize the construction and management of the highway offers speed of execution.

Director Kevin Keith reminded senators toll roads would require no tax increase and no public funds up front.

Truckers fear tolls because of the time and distance they spend on I-70. They have benefitted from one of the nation's lowest motor fuel taxes, but appear ready to let that go according to Tom Crawford of the Missouri Trucking Association. "Six years ago, we had Senator Bond at a meeting, and we told him we would support a fifty-cent fuel tax increase at the federal level," says Crawford.

Each penny of fuel tax generates only about $30 million. Those revenues decline when gas prices rise and consumption drops, and when motorists drive electric cars. A one-cent general sales tax would generate three quarters of a billion dollars annually. "We need to invest in our infrastructure and I think you can pass a state sales tax with the appropriate campaign," encouraged Ron Leone, of the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores lobby.

No one has described the toll road idea as a "bait-and-switch" strategy. But past critics, including transportation committee chairman Sen. Bill Stouffer, applaud the discussion of alternatives. Stouffer plans to take more testimony next week, with a third hearing on the bill still possible if the interest is there.