Now the question is just how high that priority will be in the face of what might be an uncertain future.
The interchange project has been identified, at least on a preliminary basis, as one of two high-ranking future Southeast Missouri projects by MoDOT, in concert with regional planning organizations and metropolitan planning organizations. Local leaders have been clamoring about the need for the new interchange since a short time after a project to build a bridge over Ramsey Creek in Scott City, connecting the town's residential, commercial and industrial centers via a direct route bypassing Interstate 55, was approved and funded.
MoDOT personnel met with local and regional planning entities from throughout the state Sept. 5, and each organization made its pitch as to which projects they consider most important. The results have been tabulated in a spreadsheet format for each one's consideration before a follow-up meeting Nov. 19, during which the group will revise its priority listing.
These meetings are part of a process that seeks input from local entities around the state to determine MoDOT priorities, called statewide transportation investment priorities meetings.
Two local projects -- creating three lanes on I-55 from Scott City to Fruitland and the new Scott City interchange -- were identified by two regional planning entities as high priorities. Because the three-lane project would occur in Cape Girardeau County, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission. The other project, because it's in Scott County, falls under the jurisdiction of the neighboring Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission.
While that doesn't mean the two proposed projects will necessarily compete for the same limited transportation dollars, they might be in competition for which project is the higher priority within MoDOT's southeast district. After the Sept. 5 meeting, the Fruitland to Scott City project is in the lead.
The project has been identified as a high priority by its regional planning group even though a recent MoDOT study found that the I-55 corridor in that area -- with the exception of the stretch between Scott City and Highway 74 -- has enough capacity to meet traffic needs for the next 20 years.
The Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission's recommendation actually predated the results of that study, said Bill Robison, planning manager for MoDOT's southeast district. But those results don't trump the priority of that project, either.
"When we look at traffic volumes within our district, that section is in the top one or two ...," Robison said. "That is a section that we need to be looking at."
Chauncy Buchheit, director of the southeast planning commission, said the I-55 project's placement on the preliminary rankings doesn't necessarily mean it's the region's highest priority, but that the statewide group representing regional interests saw it as a high priority. But even in light of the MoDOT study results, Buchheit said he thinks a traffic solution might still be needed, especially with the possibility of increased traffic from development in the East Main Street/LaSalle Avenue interchange area.
"I don't have a good feeling about going out too far in predictions on what our need will be," Buchheit said.
Since the project hasn't even been placed on a state construction plan and MoDOT's funds might shrink, there are no guarantees when the project might become more than just a suggestion. By that time, traffic levels could have changed.
The budget crunch, and its implication for future projects, is looming on the horizon. MoDOT is anticipating receiving $569 million in funds for road and bridge projects in 2010 unless more appropriations are made. In the current fiscal year, the agency will spend $1.23 billion on roads and bridges.
But the Fruitland/Scott City project, with an estimated cost of $30 million, would have implications for addressing the concerns that prompted Scott County officials to lobby for a new interchange -- easing congestion at the current Scott City exit -- and the goal of increasing connectivity between Cape Girardeau and Scott City. In addition to creating three lanes along the stretch, "improved outer road connectivity" with a new road over the Diversion Channel is part of the suggestion.
That road would conceivably provide a direct connection between Cape Girardeau and Nash Road/Route AB at the Scott City or Cape Girardeau industrial parks. Now the only direct connection is I-55.
In combination with the Ramsey Creek project that is currently in the planning stage, traffic could bypass I-55 altogether when traveling from Cape Girardeau to Scott City's Main Street without having to take indirect, time-consuming routes.
And if Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City receive a combined Metropolitan Planning Organization status, the two projects will no longer fall under the jurisdiction of separate entities. An answer on that status should come early next year, said Cape Girardeau Area Magnet Executive Director Mitch Robinson.
The Sept. 5 meeting and the coming Nov. 19 meeting are about long-range priorities, not immediate solutions. Those priorities are revised regularly, so nothing is guaranteed about either local project.
But identifying those priorities does have an important purpose, said Robison.
"The outcome is to help lawmakers and legislators understand that if the state received additional investment in transportation, what are some of the high priority projects that investment would buy," Robison said.
Without that additional investment, MoDOT is looking at just having enough cash to maintain roads and bridges by 2010.
Despite the uncertainties, Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said he's still optimistic that the new interchange -- estimated to cost $10 million -- will be built, even if he doesn't know when.
"It's going to be quite a while before it happens, but if we know it's going to happen in five or six years, we'd be fine with it," Burger said.
Scott City and county officials had once hoped the project might be paired with the Ramsey Creek Bridge project, but Burger said he's resigned himself to that not happening. "At the same time, we have to take what we get and move on to the next project," Burger said.
So far several projects, many of them in the state's urban areas, have received higher priority scores than the two local ones. But those involved with the process like Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission director Steve Duke and southeast regional planning director Buchheit said they have faith that the process treats rural and urban areas of the state fairly.
"Naturally I'd like for it to be No. 1," Duke said, "but I don't have a problem with the process. It was equitable and fair."
Projects like the Ramsey Creek Bridge and the East Main Street/LaSalle Avenue interchange came out of the same process.
335-6611, extension 182
In addition to determining future priority projects, the Nov. 19 meeting between MoDOT and local transportation planning officials from around the state will also decide how to spend $140 million the transportation agency recently acquired thanks to a favorable bond market.
Two projects are to be recommended for funding in MoDOT's southeast district: creating four lanes on U.S. 67 south of Poplar Bluff to its intersection with Highway 160 and widening and resurfacing of Highway 34 between Glenallen and Marble Hill.
Those projects are estimated at $27 million to $28 million for U.S. 67 and $5 million for Highway 34.
Because funds are limited, there's no guarantee any of the $140 million will go toward either project, said Bill Robison, planning manager for MoDOT's southeast district.
The projects were selected by regional planning commissions in their respective areas.
Robison said the southeast district had hoped to recommend four projects, but decided to pare its recommendations down to two because of the limited nature of the funding. Robison said the district hopes for approval on one of the projects. And if one of those projects is funded, it will free up future funds to go toward other priority projects, he said.
-- Matt Sanders