By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS – Songs immortalize our roadways, hinting at the possibilities along one’s journey and about how the road goes on forever.
What they fail to mention is how much it costs to maintain these endless highways and fabled byways, many of which are fading, crumbling and closed for repair.
And what about the people who pay for the roads? No one sings about them.
A University of Missouri professor has an idea that, on the surface, isn’t new or novel. Carlos Sun, an MU engineering professor, suggests building toll roads.
In a study published in the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, Sun says tolls more equitably distribute the costs to build and repair roads, since only people who use them pay the fees.
“I am not necessarily calling for toll roads in Missouri,” Sun told Missouri Watchdog. “I think it would be unfortunate if toll roads were ruled out without a serious debate over their merits.”
Politicians and transportation officials seem reluctant to implement pay-for-use highways and interstates for fear of angering drivers. The Missouri Department of Transportation in May scrapped an idea to establish toll booths along Interstate 70 between Independence and Wentzville to fund repairs to that road.
The aforementioned interstate connects St. Louis and Kansas City and traverses the United States from Utah to Maryland.
People hated the toll idea, and they told lawmakers so.
But Sun says money must be found to provide a long-term fix for the state’s crumbling transportation system.
“The reality of the situation now is that the Highway Trust Fund may go broke as the cost of repairing bridges and roads outpaces fuel-tax revenues,” he said.
Congress passed legislation last month that earmarks $18.8 billion in taxpayer money for transportation projects to keep HTF spending at current levels through fiscal year 2014. Lawmakers decided against raising the U.S. gasoline tax rate of of 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel to provide more long-term funding for the fund.
The HTF, created in 1956, would have run out of money in less than two years without legislative action, said a Congressional Budget Office report released in January.
The HTF’s highway account opened fiscal 2011 with a balance of $14.3 billion, a 31 percent drop from the previous year. Experts attribute the fund’s decline to a combination of Americans driving less and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Deborah Lockridge, editor of Schaumburg, Illinois-based Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, told Watchdog the country needs to vastly refurbish its infrastructure.
“The political climate is not conducive to figure out how to do that,” she said. “The amount we get to pay for roads keeps going down, and the cost to build them keeps going up.”
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri, whose House District 4 covers much of the I-70 corridor in the western part of the state, was among the 373 House members to vote for the transportation legislation, called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. Fifty-two lawmakers voted against it, while the measure passed 74-19 in the Senate.
Her press secretary, Steve Walsh, told Watchdog Hartzler didn’t have a position on toll roads, because “it’s a state issue.”
Toll roads are not unprecedented in the Midwest. Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma have them, Lockridge said.
Sun said drivers might take I-70 instead of nearby interstates through middle America if they know the fees they pay would promise
“Well-maintained toll roads could capture revenue for Missouri’s economy from out-of-state truckers and travelers, even if they don’t buy gas or other products in the state,” he said.
Lockridge said drivers would more likely take a different approach to tolls.
“A lot of times they take secondary roads to avoid them, which leads to congestion on the secondary roads,” she said.
Typically, toll roads are built for the purpose of collecting the fees, as opposed to building toll booths on existing roadways, Lockridge said. The section of I-70 through Missouri is one of three roads eligible — under a 2005 pilot program with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration — for conversion to pay-for-use.
MODOT special assignments coordinator Bob Brendel said his department has studied the conversion of I-70 to a toll road for nearly a decade, but it’s abandoning any plans because it can’t get funding from the Missouri General Assembly.
Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley created the Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri’s Transportation Needs earlier this year. The committee of civic and business leaders is criss-crossing the state this summer.
Brendel cites Tilley’s panel as a positive step after the failure of MODOT’s plan.
“The good thing is that the discussion of tolls has prompted a much broader discussion of how to fund transportation in Missouri overall,” Brendel said.
In June meetings in Springfield and Cape Girardeau, MODOT engineers said they need more than $1.5 billion in just the southwest and southeast districts of Missouri for transportation projects. While much of the work includes optional projects to widen roads and alleviate congestion, tens of millions of dollars are needed to restore deteriorating bridges and install safety cable guards between opposing lanes of traffic on the interstates.
Matt Seiler, assistant engineer in the southeast district, said his area needs nearly $1 billion for projects in the next decade, and is allocated about $600 million during that time.
“Current funding will only allow the condition of the current transportation system to get worse,” he said.