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State transportation officials plan to propose tolls to pay for new I-70

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2011 - The Missouri Department of Transportation plans to seek an end to the state's constitutional ban on toll roads as part of a proposal to rebuild and widen Interstate 70 from St. Louis to Kansas City; it wants to use tolls to help cover the estimated $3 billion cost.

"A toll is a long-term funding source,'' said the department's district engineer, Ed Hassinger, Thursday during a local roundtable on infrastructure on infrastructure that featured representatives from business, labor and state government.

I-70 would become a toll road all across the state, from St. Louis to Kansas. Hassinger said the department plans to ask the General Assembly during the next session to consider the idea as well as allowing a public-private consortium to oversee the proposed I-70 reconstruction.

"We're getting to the point where it has to be rebuilt," Hassinger said, and money must be found to do it. Tolls, he added, can be "part of the answer."

Hassinger acknowledged that the toll road -- "one of the most 'true' user fees there is" -- is being pushed, in part, because Missouri's 17-cent-a-gallon gas tax, one of the lowest in the country, fails to raise enough money to fund the state's needed improvements to roads, highways and bridges.

The gas tax is not as reliable a money source as tolls, he added, because tax revenue goes down as vehicle fuel efficiency goes up.

Several roundtable speakers appeared open to tolls, including Gary Elliott, business manager of the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council. In an age when "taxes'' have become so unpopular, he said, tolls reflect the current conservative philosophy that "we are a 'pay as you go' society. No free lunch."

Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary/treasurer of the St. Louis Building & Trades Council, also praised the toll-road idea as one option for the St. Louis area and the state to address the state's infrastructure needs.

Neighboring states, particularly Oklahoma and Kansas, already have turned their sections of Interstates 44 and 70 into toll roads, Aboussie said.

Such an idea, he continued, represents some alternatives that the St. Louis region in particular needs to consider.

Aboussie said the region needs to develop its own infrastructure funding sources since Congress and the General Assembly -- in his opinion -- oppose a broad program to improve roads, bridges, highways and related infrastructure, while also creating jobs.

He was among several speakers who complained that public works have improperly and unfairly been drawn into the partisan and regional conflicts consuming Congress and, to a lesser degree, Jefferson City.

The backdrop for the discussion was the increased disrepair of area roads and bridges and the 25 percent unemployment among construction workers.

Contractors also are hurting. Thom Kuhn -- chief executive of Millstone Bangert, Paving/Road Contractors -- said his firm's workload is down 50 percent since 2006.

Aboussie suggested that St. Louis civic, business and labor leaders consider setting up a regional taxing district -- dedicated for infrastructure -- similar to the one in Atlanta, Ga. The latter's district pays for significant transportation improvements, he said, which in turn help Atlanta rebound economically.

Such a district, said Aboussie, could help raise the money for such efforts as a "China hub" at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Proposed state tax breaks for the hub got caught in philosophical, political and regional turf battles during recent sessions of the General Assembly.

"I don't think you ever give up on Jefferson City or Washington," Aboussie said. But he then cited the General Assembly's seven-week special session.

None of the economic development proposals -- billed as the key focus of the session -- ended up getting passed, Aboussie said. "We witnessed a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer dollars.''

Raising money via tolls or other avenues, he and others said, may be the only way for the St. Louis region to get around the partisan fights that they contend are scuttling necessary public works projects -- and endangering the public.

Elliott asserted that he didn't want to see an area bridge collapse before local officials finally take action.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.