I-55 interchange deal takes step of progress

Saturday, August 21, 2004

The vision is grand. A new interchange along Interstate 55 will connect to Jackson's Main Street, easing traffic and creating a new entrance for the county seat and, eventually, for Cape Girardeau.

The project would create an avenue for commercial development as well as for Southeast Missouri State University's proposed life sciences research park. All this will lead to more tax revenue for the cities and the county; more high-paying jobs and more money for the university.

Indeed, the vision is grand. The negotiations to pay for it? Well, that's where the vision becomes a little blurry.

A cooperative-government draft, introduced by Southeast Missouri State University, is currently on the table and being looked at by the elected bodies and legal counsel among the major players.

The proposal suggests that Jackson should pay half of the "local" costs -- the portion remaining after the state pays its half -- while the county, the city of Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri State University each pay one-sixth of local costs. The exact costs are still being estimated.

Negotiations got serious earlier this year, but quickly turned sour, sources familiar with the dealings say. The entities have not met all together in months.

The governments have been trying to agree on terms for a Transportation Development District. Taxes within a specially outlined transportation district could be applied within that district only, and those funds could be used to pay for the interchange.

Until the most recent proposal, which includes a transportation district, the university had not shown a serious interest in a transportation district, Jackson Mayor Paul Sander said. So he views the proposal as a move in the right direction.

Figuring costs

There are several unknowns remaining before any of the governmental bodies will know how much money they'll have to pay.

The state is in the process of re-evaluating the project cost, said Missouri Department of Transportation district engineer Scott Meyer. As engineers have begun refining the design, Meyer said, it appears some items will cost more than originally estimated.

There is also the unknown of how much, if any, funding will come from the next federal highway bill.

Several discussions have been held between local officials and U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.

If federal funds pay for the half left after MoDOT's contribution, there will be no need for the proposal among the university and local governments.

Then the question arises: Will the drafting of a cooperative funding agreement between local governments hinder their chances to receive federal funds?

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson doesn't think so.

"That's something that's been explored greatly," Knudtson said. "I have been assured that if we have an intergovernmental agreement in place that it won't hurt."

If the funding doesn't come through, that will mean the local governments will have to pick up the slack.

Sander wouldn't discuss the proposal's suggestion that Jackson pay for half, while the other local governments each pay one-sixth. But he did say there is a limit to how much Jackson can pay. He said Jackson has promised to secure the local funds -- based on the assumption that other entities would cooperate -- if the project is built. But Jackson has made no promises that the interchange will be built.

"It is a top priority of mine and has been for years," he said. "However, I won't agree to anything that mortgages Jackson's future. Jackson is in very good financial condition, and I intend for it to be in good financial condition when this project is finished."

Jackson's commitment to get funding for half the project has proved to inhibit its leverage position.

"I do think that Jackson is the one that will benefit the most immediately," Knudtson said when asked why Jackson had to pay half and the others only one-sixth.

Right-of-way talks stalled

Jackson's position is that it has already appropriated $1.2 million for the final phase of the East Main Street extension; it is also responsible for acquiring the right of way.

Jackson city administrator Jim Roach said right-of-way negotiations for the extension have stalled as the city waits to see what will happen with the interchange.

Cape Girardeau has a lot at stake in this interchange. There has been an informal agreement for some time that the interstate would be the cities' dividing line. However, without Cape Girardeau's involvement in the transportation district, which includes annexation of property by the city, there is the legal possibility that one day Jackson could annex the other side of the interchange and claim the property, which could come with a lot of tax revenue.

Neither side has claimed that will happen, but it could.

But Knudtson sees the project being important for the growth of the city.

"We've had a lot of subdivision developments that have occurred out that way in the last couple of years, and we've been able to bring a lot of infrastructure out there," Knudtson said. "It's brought us a lot closer to the interstate a lot sooner than we thought. I believe this interchange is one project that will ultimately benefit much more than Jackson."

bmiller@semissourian.com

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