Op Ed
July 20, 2007

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An eight-lane I-70?
Is that really what we need?

by Ron McLinden

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) has nearly completed environmental studies required for re-building 200 miles of I-70 across Missouri as a six-lane facility. The anticipated cost is in the $2.5 to $3.0 billion range.

But even before that gets underway, MoDOT and its friends are promoting a plan to make I-70 an eight-lane highway, with four of those lanes dedicated to truck traffic.

MoDOT has also joined three other state DOTs in applying for federal money to study the concept of dedicated truck lanes on 789 miles of I-70 across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. (The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club sent comments to USDOT about that application.)

The concept sounds appealing — you and I would feel more at ease if we didn't have to share road space with the big 18-wheelers. State Sen. Bill Stouffer of Napton (Saline County) is a principal proponent of the idea. Stouffer wants to make Missouri a national hub for distribution — even more so than we already are. “I want to pull more trucks through Missouri,” he said at a recent meeting.

But that overlooks the cost of accommodating more traffic on local roads, especially in the urban areas. Furthermore, the proposed funding mechanism is a problem. Instead of building the truck lanes as toll lanes, Stouffer's proposal is to increase the state sales tax by one cent. Rep. Neal St. Onge (St. Louis County) favors a combination of user fee increases and a half-cent sales tax.

Another major flaw is that neither proposal contains more than a pittance for transit and other non-highway modes. The St. Onge proposal includes $8.3 million per year for public transit, but that's little more than what the Missouri General Assembly currently appropriates, and less (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than what was appropriated a few years ago. The Stouffer proposal provides nothing for non-highway modes of transportation.

At a “Transportation Funding Summit” on June 11, MoDOT Director Pete Rahn joined Stouffer and St. Onge in support of more money for highways. Rahn talked about the approaching “perfect storm” in transportation funding — the federal Highway Trust Fund will be depleted in 2009, MoDOT will have to start paying off bonds it sold to finance the re-paving of some 2,200 miles of the state's major highways, and the cost of asphalt and steel and other highway materials continues to increase.

The June 11 summit, sponsored by the Missouri Transportation and Development Council, attracted over a hundred highway supporters, but there were a handful of transit supporters in attendance as well. One asked what would be done about the fact that public transit in Missouri is “woefully under-funded.” The three panelists acknowledged transit needs — including those of the rural transit providers — but didn't indicate a willingness to broaden their programs.

In a Sierra Club message to Rahn following the summit, we pointed out that a highway-funding program that relies on the sales tax will compete with every other possible use of that money. Thus, it'll be subject to an “opportunity cost test:” What other state needs will go unmet if we raise the sales tax for an eight-lane I-70?

We also reminded him that transportation plans that don't explicitly consider climate change are simply not valid. The many measures that our own and other governments will enact to head off climate change, along with market reactions to those measures, will change everything — including decisions about how much transportation our economy needs and what modes we choose to meet those needs.

In their defense, Stouffer and St. Onge say they have offered their funding plans to “get the discussion started.” That's good, provided there's a true discussion. Of concern, however, is that legislators will talk about the problem for another few months, then proclaim there's no consensus about how to raise the money — i.e., run away from a tax increase as the 2008 elections approach — and leave the matter to the highway contractors and engineering and trucking companies who would write a plan to their own liking, circulate petitions (as they did in 2004 for Amendment 3), and sell it to the voters with a misleading campaign.

Another summit will be held in Jefferson City on July 31, this one sponsored by the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight of the General Assembly. (See the invitation at http://www.modot.org/ExpressLane/ documents/07TranspFundingSumInvite.pdf)

The Sierra Club's overview of the issues, plus our letter to MoDOT Director Pete Rahn, is on the web at
http://missouri.sierraclub.org/thb/conservation/transportation/index.html.

Ron McLinden lives in Kansas City and co-chairs the Missouri Transportation Committee of the Sierra Club. His article was written for the Missouri Sierran, quarterly newsletter of the Missouri Chapter of the Club.


              
              
                 

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