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.
On Wednesday, the Missouri Senate Transportation Committee heard about two hours of public testimony 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.
“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.
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. MO DOT Director, Kevin 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.
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.