Nixon: Mo. toll roads not part of short-term plans

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said a proposal to convert Interstate 70 into a toll road would be a "substantial change" and that doing it would require "broad consensus" among the public and within the state Legislature.

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 with revenue collected from tolls. MoDOT says rebuilding the highway would cost roughly $2 billion to $4 billion depending upon how ambitious the project becomes. A less costly option would install three lanes for whole route with a more elaborate rebuild creating dedicated truck lanes.

The Transportation Department is governed by a commission, whose members are appointed by Missouri governors. The commission selects the department's director.

Nixon said it is important to examine ideas that ensure Missouri has sufficient infrastructure but that toll roads had not been part of his immediate proposals.

"I think clearly in the short run that's not something we have put on the forefront, but I think longer-term planning is something that everybody across the state should always be prepared to talk about," Nixon said.

He praised the Transportation Department for attempting to steer more money into road and bridge projects by approving a plan earlier this year that is expected to save $512 million by 2015. It calls for cutting about 1,200 positions and closing 131 facilities.

Also unclear is where the Legislature stands on requiring motorists to pay a toll for traveling the state's main east-west highway. A joint transportation committee last month praised the Department of Transportation for attempting to ignite the discussion but stopped short of actually endorsing the proposal.

MoDOT Director Kevin Keith said the toll road proposal was the only method currently available to the agency to rebuild a highway that he says is worn out and approaching the limits for its capacity to carry cars and trucks. Keith estimated 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.

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

The Transportation Department's model for rebuilding I-70 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.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)