No support for toll roads, MoDOT says

Saturday, March 8, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Winning the constitutional authority to build toll roads -- a top priority of the Missouri Department of Transportation -- appears to have little support in the Missouri Legislature.

After voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase for transportation last summer, department officials decided to focus on the issue of toll roads. However, Jay Wunderlich, MoDOT's governmental affairs director, told the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission on Friday that arguments in favor of the idea have "fallen on deaf ears" in the legislature.

"There is no interest in tolling this year," Wunderlich said.

Generating support for toll authority, which would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment, will take a substantial amount of education for both lawmakers and voters to overcome the misconception that MoDOT would impose tolls on existing highways, Wunderlich said.

Ambiguous authority

MoDOT chief engineer Kevin Keith said a more detailed plan is needed to build that support.

"When it is just this ambiguous toll authority, it is never going to get passed," Keith said. "It would have a chance if we had a few specific projects."

But department officials said possible changes at the federal level could make tolling more attractive in Missouri.

Present federal law largely prohibits tolls on interstate highways, except where they already exist. With their large volume of through traffic, however, those highways are the most feasible for tolls.

Commissioner James Anderson of Springfield recently visited with Missouri's congressional delegation and said efforts are moving forward in Congress to lift that restriction.

"They say this is very likely -- not possible but probable -- this session," Anderson said.

Tolls could only be put on interstate highways that are completely rebuilt, said MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler.

Even if the federal law were changed, Missouri voters would still have the final say on tolls, which they rejected in 1971 and 1992.

A report issued by the department in August suggested tolls could be feasible on several highways in Missouri, including Interstate 55 from Festus to the Arkansas border.

The study examined the possibility of tolls for two other Southeast Missouri highways but concluded the revenue generated wouldn't be sufficient to cover the cost of improvements and toll collection. Those routes were U.S. 60 from Sikeston to Springfield and U.S. 67 from Farmington to the Arkansas state line.

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