Nixon: Tolls should require voter approval

Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday that before any toll booths could open on Interstate 70, voters first should agree to the idea. However, the governor did not say whether he supports putting tolls on one of the state’s most important highways.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has asked state lawmakers for authority to form a partnership with private contractors to rebuild I-70 and recover the costs by collecting tolls. Currently, there are no tolls on the interstate highway connecting Kansas City and St. Louis. Legislation was filed in the state Senate earlier this week.

Nixon told members of The Associated Press and the Missouri Press Association during their annual Capitol media event that a variety of ideas for Missouri’s transportation system should be considered. He said Missouri has one of the largest road networks in the nation and revenue from gas taxes is declining with vehicles becoming more fuel efficient and the use of hybrid and electric cars growing.

Nixon said allowing a toll road would be a significant change.

“If we’re going to have those, the people of the state of Missouri need to vote on them,” he said.

The governor declined to say whether he would take a leading role in advocating for the measure. Instead, he implied it would be up to others to put forth a specific proposal.

“If this sort of stuff gets on the ballot, then I would be inclined to voice my First Amendment rights at that particular juncture,” Nixon said.

State Transportation Director Kevin Keith has said increasing amounts of traffic on I-70 requires work to add lanes and repave the road. He said accidents and construction now can force traffic to back up for miles. The Transportation Department has offered three options for the highway ranging in cost from $2 billion to $6 billion, depending on how ambitious the project becomes. Improvements could include adding an additional lane, installing new medians and building dedicated lanes for trucks.

Keith said other funding options would require a 15-cent increase to Missouri’s fuel tax for the next decade or an extra half-cent sales tax for the next 10 years.

The Missouri Transportation Department is governed by a commission whose members are appointed by the governor. The commission selects the department’s director.

Installing tolls on I-70 would require federal permission because the highway already exists. Missouri has been given tentative approval through a federal pilot program.

The Transportation Department’s model for rebuilding I-70 is borrowed from a plan previously approved by the Legislature for constructing a new Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis. Lawmakers approved a measure that allowed private investors to charge a toll for using the bridge in exchange for helping to pay the cost of building the new span. Ultimately, the funding method was not used because officials in Illinois objected to a toll bridge.

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