By WES DUPLANTIER
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The chairman of the Missouri Senate Transportation Committee said that he wants to send to the full chamber a proposal to fund improvements on Interstate 70 that could include placing tolls on the highway.
The committee heard about two hours of public testimony Wednesday on legislation that would allow the state to contract with a private company to fix I-70 in exchange for being allowed to charge tolls.
Chairman Sen. Bill Stouffer said more public hearings will be held on tolls legislation in coming weeks. He said he hopes to eventually vote the legislation out of his committee so it can go before the full Senate, and he said that proposal could include increases in state sales or gas taxes in addition to tolls.
"My goal is to push this thing as far as we can push it, whether it be tolls or a combination of other funding mechanisms," said Stouffer, R-Napton. "If we can identify a (funding) stream that is acceptable to the public, I'm all for it."
The Missouri Department of Transportation has offered three options for the highway improvements that range in cost from $2 billion to $4 billion. Improvements could include adding an additional lane, installing new medians and building dedicated lanes for trucks.
The project would be financed by a private company that would then collect toll money to recoup its investment. Stouffer said such an arrangement would be necessary because the state constitution prohibits mixing toll money with state highway funding.
MoDOT Director Kevin Keith showed the transportation committee two canisters with layers of concrete and asphalt taken from sections of I-70 near Columbia, revealing how the surface appeared smooth while layers underneath were cracked and crumbling. He said the state needs to find a funding mechanism for the highway repairs soon, because increasing amounts of traffic are rapidly wearing those materials down.
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. Keith said his department won't know how much the tolls would be until it is in negotiations with the financing company.
Representatives from the state's trucking and fuel industries voiced opposition to the measure.
Ron Leone, executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said gas station owners favor an increase in the state sales tax. He said tolls could encourage drivers to avoid the interstate and its interchanges, where many gas stations are set up.
Keith told lawmakers last month that tolls could divert 10 percent of the traffic on I-70 to other roads.
Tom Crawford, the president and CEO of the Missouri Trucking Association, said lawmakers should not pass a tolls measure without the approval of Missouri voters because the tolls would amount to a tax on industry and consumers.
Crawford said truckers would more likely support an increase in the state's gas tax - currently 17 cents per gallon- because it would be easier for the industry to pass that cost to its customers.
The sponsor of the tolls legislation, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said neither the sales nor gas tax suggestions would get enough support from voters to be approved in the Legislature or at the ballot box.
"I know that the word "toll' is a dirty word, but the state doesn't seem to want to have a tax increase," said Kehoe, a former member of the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission.
Several lawmakers in both the House and Senate publicly oppose putting tolls on I-70. Stouffer said he was aware of that opposition, but said a debate in the full Senate would draw voters' attention to the issue, even if a bill does not pass this year.
"We have totally used up what our parents and grandparents provided for us in the interstate system," he said. "Doing nothing is not an option."
Toll roads bill is SB752