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Transportation chief says I-70 is 'completely falling apart' and 'used up'

Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission chairman Steven Miller was in St. Louis on Monday to talk with reporters about rebuilding I-70.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission chairman Stephen Miller was in St. Louis on Monday to talk with reporters about rebuilding I-70.

Stephen Miller wants Missourians to see Interstate 70 as more than just a way to travel from St. Louis to Kansas City – or as a means to get to the glorious statue of Jim the Wonder Dog in Marshall.

The chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission wants to spark a public conversation about restructuring the widely traveled highway. That includes figuring out a revenue source to pay for what he says are much-needed repairs.

Credit via Flickr/KOMUnews

“We need to make certain that Missourians understand that I-70 is a lot more than just ‘Gee, I’d like a nice ride if I drive between St. Louis and Kansas City.’ It is the economic lifeline for our state,” said Miller, an attorney from Kansas City who serves as the commission’s chairman. “Sixty percent of our population is within 30 miles of I-70. Sixty percent of our jobs are within that same corridor. If we don’t take care of that lifeline, then we’re going to find that there are dramatic economic consequences throughout the entire state.”

After visiting with St. Louis’ business and governmental leadership, Miller spoke with reporters about the Missouri Department of Transportation’s “Road to Tomorrow” initiative. It’s a push, Miller said, that’s about “reinvigorating the conversation and figuring out a way that we deal with the reconstruction of I-70.”

On Interstate 70’s condition:

Miller said that most interstate highways have a 50-year span of “useful life.” Since I-70 began construction in 1957, Miller said it’s long past time for the roadway to receive a major overhaul.

“If you do your math, that means in about 2007, the useful life of I-70 was done,” Miller said. “And that means that while the traveling public would drive across I-70 and see a relatively smooth top layer of asphalt, underneath that the substructure that supports that roadway is completely falling apart. It is used up.”

He went onto say that even though drivers may not realize that the roadway is in bad shape, the status becomes more apparent as engineers dig down.

“It’s as if with your teeth, there was rotting at the roots – but the dentist put a nice veneer on it. It might look good for a short period of time, but your teeth are going to fall out,” Miller said. “That’s exactly where we sit with I-70. And those little top veneers will become more frequent, and will not last as long. We literally have to tear up I-70 down to the bare ground and begin again.”

On the inability for public or legislature to boost funding:

Voters shot down a 0.75 percent sales tax increase last August, a revenue stream that would have partly gone to fix I-70. And the legislature didn’t end up passing a modest increase in the state’s gas tax during the past session.

While Miller conceded that those particular defeats are “frustrating in some sense,” he added those outcomes show “that we have to do a better job of educating our public.

“And our public has to do a better job of pressing our legislative leaders to do the right thing,” he said.

Miller also said failure to make big changes to I-70 will have consequences across the state – and not just in the eastern, central and western parts of the state.

“They may never drive across I-70,” he said. “But the costs for their goods, the economic opportunities, the tax base – everything within our economic system will depend upon the vitality of I-70.”

On whether tollways are part of the solution

During his State of the State address, Gov. Jay Nixon kicked around the idea of instituting tollways on I-70 – a proposal that didn’t get much of a response from legislators.

When asked if part of the “Roadway to Tomorrow” initiative would be a discussion of tolling I-70, Miller “tollways remain a viable option that’s out there. The idea about Road to Tomorrow is intended to see if we can identify revenue sources other than tollways.”

“In the past, if we looked at having to find a revenue source that was user based outside of our fuel tax – tolling was the only other thing out there,” Miller said. “We know that. We understand that model. The idea of Road to Tomorrow is saying ‘OK, what else is out there that might be used instead or in addition to what we already know about.’”

On other ideas that could help I-70:

Miller said that transportation policymakers “can see things that are bubbling up with entrepreneurs.” That includes changing how roads are constructed.

He said one unnamed businessperson had the idea of rebuilding highways not “by pouring concrete or asphalt in place on the site,” but by manufacturing “panels in a factory that would be eight feet long, 13 feet wide.”

“And we’ll come out and we’ll snap them in place,” Miller said. “And those panels will actually be embedded with fiber or electrical cables that would enable us to have very, very [high-tech] GPS systems that might be used by commercial trucks to provide autonomous driving vehicles. And you might pay for that service as a subscription service – the way people right now pay for cellular service. So that’s one idea out there.”

Miller compared the current state of highways with how cell phones were viewed in the 1980s or 1990s.

“I hold up my cell phone. And I said 20 or 30 years ago, all that was a telephone – a means to communicate,” Miller said. “But now, this little cell phone is an unbelievable economic engine. And who could have ever imagined all the apps, all the services and all the revenue that flows through what was once just a telephone? What was once just a highway, are we going to look back 10 or 20 years from now and say ‘gosh, these people saw it just as a road. But now, look at all the things that are done through our transportation'.”

On the main goal of “Road to Tomorrow:”

Miller said that the “Road to Tomorrow” initiative is “harkening back to great examples in our history.” That includes President Abraham Lincoln advocating for a transcontinental railroad or President John F. Kennedy wanting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

“My goal is that this moment in history will be a similar announcement for Missouri,” he said. “And what I hope is just like the Golden Spike was driven, just like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and just like a 40,000 mile interstate system, that we’re going to realize that Road to Tomorrow. We’re going to figure out a way to build a highway that’s a 21st century highway that realizes all the promise of technology on all realms. From revenue generation to safety to enjoyment to efficiency to economic growth.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.