CHICAGO — Missouri lawmakers have shelved legislation that would have permitted the implementation of tolls on Interstate 70 to fund a $2 billion to $4 billion rebuilding and expansion of the aging highway through a public-private partnership.
Though the head of the Senate Transportation Committee said no vote is expected before the Legislature adjourns later this month, the full Senate did pass a resolution last week to form a special legislative panel to explore state transportation infrastructure needs and financing ideas.
The measure now goes to the House. A special public committee convened by House leaders this spring is also exploring transportation funding solutions.
“The legislation served the purpose of getting the conversation about transportation funding in Missouri going,” said Robert Broeker, chief financial officer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, which issues debt through the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.
The agency has not yet decided if it will pursue the legislation again next year.
The proposals to place tolls to fund upgrades and an expansion for the highway, which traverses the state and links St. Louis and Kansas City, received both positive and negative comments during a round of legislative hearings earlier this year.
The Transportation Department crafted three preliminary plans for legislative discussion.
They included a $4 billion rebuilding and expansion of the four-lane highway to eight lanes, with two lanes in each direction dedicated to passenger vehicles and two dedicated truck lanes.
A second scenario called for a $3 billion plan with two new lanes, one in each direction, and a wide median. A third plan costing $2 billion would add a lane in each direction with no median.
With the MDOTt’s bonding capacity tapped out, transportation director Kevin Keith began pushing the idea of converting I-70 into a toll road last year. Broeker said the 60-year-old highway is one of the oldest in the nation, was built with a useful life of 25 years in mind, and is overcrowded.
Facing a funding crisis, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, which oversees the MDOT, last year adopted a five-year budget plan that eliminated more than 1,000 positions and shuttered facilities to save $500 million for project funding.
There has been little political will in the state to raise the gas tax, which has held at 17 cents per gallon since 1996. The state has legislation authorizing non-highway P3s on the books, but so far none allows for their use on highway projects.
MDOT is pressing tolls as the most viable option to fund the project amid stagnant federal aid and the exhaustion of available state resources.q
The highway commission returned to the ranks of frequent borrowers in 2000 to finance a then-five-year capital program for which the General Assembly approved $2 billion of new debt issuance to support. Voters in 2004 then bolstered the commission’s borrowing capacity by ending the diversion of some road-related taxes to the general fund. The commission exhausted that bonding capacity to fund a $2.2 billion, five-year capital program in 2009. The commission has leveraged its federal grants but has tapped that capacity under its high internal-coverage limits.
The commission has $928 million of outstanding grant anticipation bonds and has issued a total of $4.3 billion of new-money and refunding bonds in 18 issues since 2000.