Governor pledges to include local communities in toll road discussions

Posted 5/2/15

By Bill Miller Jr.Record PublisherMissouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he understands the arguments against making Interstate 70 a toll road from people in communities like Warrenton. Those who live along …

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Governor pledges to include local communities in toll road discussions


By Bill Miller Jr.Record PublisherMissouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he understands the arguments against making Interstate 70 a toll road from people in communities like Warrenton. Those who live along the highway or use the road to commute to work stand to be among the most inconvenienced by the change.Nixon Talks TollsJeanne Miller Wood

Record PhotographerBut from an economic standpoint, Nixon says converting I-70 to a toll road is something that makes sense because it would accelerate the rebuilding of the highway and would free up tens of millions of dollars for other road and bridge projects across the state.That’s why he says he could back a toll road proposal.“If we get to that point, I want to include those communities in the discussions on how it could be implemented,” Nixon said last week. “The goal of the toll road is not to pick winners and losers by saying we like Wentzville but we don’t like Warrenton.“The goal of the toll road (concept) is to take a highway where the first dirt to build it was moved the year I was born and which the base hasn’t been worked on substantially since that time and expand its capacity to make it something that can last the next 50 years. If we get close (to that point) I look forward to sitting down with all these local communities and getting very concrete about their local concerns on how we can have a system that doesn’t impair necessary transportation.”Nixon made the comments Jan. 28 following a roundtable discussion with area law enforcement and mental health care professionals at the Washington police department.Nixon said one of the top priorities for his remaining two years in office is finding a solution for the state’s transportation funding deficit.“I feel it’s an obligation of a second-term governor to leave the state better than when you got it and I meant it when I said it and this is one of the areas I am going to spend a great deal of my time on. I want to make sure it gets done,” Nixon said.Echoing themes from his recent state of the state address, Nixon said two ideas that deserve consideration are raising the state’s gasoline tax and making I-70 a toll road.“I am going to be a lot more active this year and I’m going to try to push to get one or both of these measures moving forward,” Nixon said. “When you look at this, we are now to a point where challenges really start in 2017, so we need to get going.”Nixon was referring to a Missouri Department of Transportation report released in January which predicted the department’s construction budget for roads and bridges will drop to $325 million annually in 2017 based on exiting revenue sources.The report warns that at that funding level, the department is at risk for not having enough money to match federal funds which provide a $4 to $1 investment that Missouri will lose.State officials say that to fully match federal funds in 2017, the state would need to generate an additional $42 million in revenue which would net $168 million in federal dollars. The funding deficit to match available federal funds climbs to $100 million in 2018.Due to the funding deficit, MoDOT is proposing to refocus its efforts on fully maintaining the 8,000 miles of the state’s 34,000-mile system that connect cities across the state. These would be designated primary routes under the plan referred to as the “325 Plan.” They include Interstate 70, and Highway 47 in Warren County.The other 26,000 miles of state roads, used primarily for local traffic, would be designated as supplementary roads under the 325 Plan. These roads and any bridges along them would receive limited maintenance from MoDOT. Officials say limited maintenance would include snow removal, patching of potholes and re-striping.“I think the 325 (plan) will spur local action as these cities and counties realize that those dollars aren’t going to be there to match (the federal funds),” Nixon explained. “I think that gets another level of focus in a way that will hopefully continue this conversation. I think a lot people don’t realize how much state resources were being utilized on municipal roads. The 325 command is going to shift the responsibility for these roads to communities around the state.”Nixon said there is a natural criticism for either a toll or raising the gas tax because both proposals will cost Missourians more money. He said there is an added concern over toll roads because the state never has had one and people wonder if they would work here.“But when you consider that 70 percent of the traffic on the road is from non-Missourians, and you look at the federal match available for highway funds, you could basically have a new I-70 built, with three lanes for much safer travel with it being basically paid for somewhere 80 to 85 percent not by us. That is a cost-effective way to look at this project. So I think looking at that seriously is something that we should do.” Nixon explained.Nixon stopped short of saying he would favor exempting local traffic from an I-70 toll but stressed he was open to listening to any ideas that would make it as convenient as possible for local traffic or for those who use it to commute to work.“I understand the challenges and the arguments (against tolls) from some local communities and gas stations along the way,” Nixon added, “But there is a lot of new technology that is out there to facilitate the collection of the tolls. Most of the new tolls (roads) have duel charges — for local and car (non-local.) So there are ways to do that.“The other thing that is a lot different now has to do with the electronic car readers and the ability to bill people who use the road. You sign up to use the road and its not like you have to stop your vehicle and throw $5 in the box.  Another option Nixon said the state should consider is raising the gas tax which provides the bulk of revenue for our state’s transportation system. The state fuel tax has remained at 17 cents per gallon since 1996. Many of the states that surround Missouri charge more, including Kentucky which assesses a state fuel tax of over 26 cents per gallon.“I drove by a gas station yesterday and the gas was at $1.67 (per gallon). If we were ever going to be able to move on the gas tax side, now is the time,” Nixon urged.  Nixon said he hoped to get a proposal to the public on either or both funding proposals this year or next. He said part of the challenge is educating the public on the need for additional funds.“It is relatively early in the session, but there wasn’t thunderous applause during that portion of the state of the state when I mentioned those two issues.  But that being said, I think that people of the state understand we’re the transportation center of the country. Hopefully the people of this state will understand the underlying problem.  “Quite frankly, we’ve done a pretty good job of investing in the roads we have but what people may not understand and something we’re going to talk about is the fact that we downsized MoDOT of over 1,000 people. So over the last six years we’ve spent a lot of time trying to get that business balance sheet of MoDOT in a more modern place and they clearly are. That is something else I don’t think Missourians fully understand — 1,000 (employees) out of one department is a lot fewer employees. We don’t have a bloated bureaucracy,” Nixon noted.Proposed I-70 Toll