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Toll road debate continues despite lackluster attention in the legislature

April 08, 2003
By: Megan McCloskey
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With many areas of Missouri in need of new roads and bridges and the Missouri Department of Transportation without any new revenue options, quiet talk of toll roads has been floating around the legislature.

However, with only six weeks left in the session, the idea of toll roads is unlikely to become anything more than talk this year, because the legislation has received little attention.

But, most legislators said something needs to be done to address the transportation revenue problem.

"We are running out of options," said Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, of the tranpsortaion problem.

Legislators are looking at different ways to subsidize the seventh largest roadway system in the nation. Toll roads, though only a small piece of the puzzle, are a valuable tool that Missouri should have at its disposal, supporters say.

Last year voters overwhelmingly rejected Propisition B, which would have increased the fuel tax by four cents per gallon. The tax would have generated an estimated $483 million that Missouri needs to maintain its vast roadway system.

Without the fuel tax increase the state needs other sources of revenue. However, Missouri doesn't have legal authority to implement toll roads, so the voters would have to approve a constitutional ammendment in order for MoDOT to utilize toll roads.

Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, is sponsoring a constiutional ammendment to allow toll roads to be used for new construction only. The ammendment is subject to voter approval.

Both times toll roads have been on the ballot, in 1970 and 1992, voters rejected the ammendment.

However, before the ammendment gets to the voters, the joint resolution must be passed by both houses. So far this session toll road legislation in the House and the Senate has stalled in committee.

The new toll proposal states that tolls would remain in place until the revenue generated from the tolls had fully funded the project. After that is accomplished the tolls would cease, and the road or bridge would become a part of the toll-free state system.

To build a road the state would take out bonds to pay for the construction, and the money generated from the tolls would be used to pay back the bonds.

According to MoDOT's toll roads feasibility study, only a few of the projects they assessed could be built on toll money alone. For most of the projects, only 40 percent of the costs would be payed for by tolls, leavign the remaining debt to be payed for with other funds.

Repairs, like the ones needed on I-70, aren't helped by toll roads because tolls cannot be used on existing federally-funded roads, because federal law restricts tolls from being placed on highways and roads that are assisted by federal funding.

In order for tolls to be used to pay for an expansion of I-70 for example, the legislature would have to ask the U.S. government for one of the few exemptions allowed.

There has been talk, however, at the federal level of easing restrictions on interstate highways, said Jeff Briggs, MODOT spokesman.

Despite federal restrictions, MODOT said toll roads are an option they would like to have.

"It's one more tool to get improvements done," said department spokesman Jeff Briggs. The department supports Loudon's bill, but they haven't committed to specific projects.

Those opposed to tolls voice concerns about what projects MODOT will choose to finance with tolls.

Estill Fretwell, of The Missouri Farm Bureau said, that while the Bureau does not have an official position on the toll roads debate, members are concerned that toll roads will be used to fund projects that were already promised under previous tax packages.

In 1992 MODOT adopted a 15-year plan for transportation projects that was coupled with 2-cent fuel tax increases in the years 1992, 1994, and 1996.

Since MODOT's own study in 1998 concluded that the 15-year plan was not financially viable, Briggs said that MODOT couldn't rule out the possibility of using tolls to pay for projects specified under the plan.

The Missouri Motor Carriers Association, which represents more than 525 trucking companies, is against tolls roads.

"The very basic reason is that we have already paid for the roads," said George Burruss, the organization's president.

They argue that by building a toll road next to an existing road, the existing road won't be maintained by the state. No one would want to drive on the old roadway, so in effect you are putting tolls on existing roads, he said.

MODOT's policy has been "taking care of what we have," but Briggs said, "We can't just say no new roads ever."

The question is whether tolls are the solution for financing those new roads.

Under Loudon's bill, MODOT would be responsible for the maintenance of any new toll projects, because the tolls would only be in place to pay back the bonds.

"Tolls are an innovative idea," said Sen. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles, who is the Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee. "But, we can't forget the maintenance aspect."

Kansas has had success with its toll road, the Kansas Turnpike, but the turnpike is operated by a private company.

What has kept the turnpike successful is the continual use of bonds and tolls to maintain the road, said Lisa Callahan, director of public relations for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.

Supporters of tolls roads, including Loudon, say toll roads give people choices. Many new bridges and roads won't come to fruition without toll roads to pay for them, Loudon said.

"This lets people decide, 'Do I want a road or not?'" Loudon said.

Rep. James Seigfreid, D-Marshall, has introduced a bill in the House that is almost identical to Loudon's bill.

"Toll roads are a way to get projects done that wouldn't happen otherwise," Seigfreid said.

The typical chant of toll road supporters is, "You never drive on it, you never pay for it."

But, Rep. Larry Crawford, R-Centertown and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he is "lukewarm about toll roads," and he is concerned about the impact of toll roads on tourism.

"How will toll roads impact Missouri's businesses?" Crawford said.

Crawford also said he is worried about the roadways that surround possible toll road projects. It is only logical, he said, that commercial vehicles would find other routes to avoid paying tolls. This may simply transfer the problem of damaged roads to alternative routes that are incapable of handling the heavy truck load, Crawford said.

Supporters, though, tout toll roads as a way to remove the whole burden of paying for major roads from Missourians, and place some of it on those from other states who drive on Missouri roads.

Loudon said new toll projects would also reduce the need for 1-70 by providing alternative routes that can handle the traffic.