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Lawmakers chip away at Missouri governor’s plan for I-70 improvements

Patrick McKenna, executive director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, testifies in January before the legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight.
Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent
Patrick McKenna, executive director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, testifies in January before the legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight.

The biggest single building project in Gov. Mike Parson’s budget — $859 million to widen three sections of Interstate 70 — will have to be pared back if lawmakers divert funds to other highways, Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna said Tuesday.

McKenna spent part of the day answering questions about MoDOT appropriations as the House Budget Committee works through Parson’s $51.6 billion spending plan for all of state government. The goal, Chairman Cody Smith said, is to be ready to amend the budget when lawmakers return after their upcoming mid-session break.

The funding for the I-70 project would be almost 20% of the proposed $4.8 billion MoDOT budget for the coming fiscal year.

In subcommittee work, amendments to take $48 million from the I-70 plan passed, with the money being redirected to a five-mile project on Interstate 44 in Springfield and an environmental impact study for improvements to the entire I-44 corridor.

Widening I-70 to three lanes in each direction would cost an estimated $2.7 billion. Parson’s plan would dedicate $859 million to add lanes through Boone County in central Missouri, and extend the sections with three lanes in the suburban Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

State Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, D-Columbia, asked McKenna what he would do if the cuts approved in the subcommittee remain in place. Cuts would have to be found, he replied.

“We have estimates on those three projects that total $859 million and we’d have to reconsider the scope,” McKenna said. “We would probably cut down, depending on where we would find that — we’d have to do further analysis — but it would just be a reduction in scope.”

Lawmakers have control of how much is dedicated to I-70 because Parson is tapping the bulging general revenue surplus — estimated to be $4.9 billion on June 30 — to fund it. The main source of MoDOT funding is off-limits to lawmakers, but that could change.

Questioning of McKenna began in the committee’s morning session and resumed after the House, in floor action, voted 101-45 in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers control of the state road fund. Currently, money from fuel taxes, license fees and vehicle sales taxes to maintain highways“stand appropriated without legislative action.”

The proposed constitutional amendment now goes to the Senate where, if approved, it would be put on a statewide ballot.

During the hearing, Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, peppered McKenna with questions about how I-70 was chosen over other projects, such as I-44.

“Is this something that stems from the fact that I-70 does go through what I have coined as being the bureaucrat bubble?” Cupps asked.

Cupps, who drives a truck, said he doesn’t believe the congestion on I-70 outside urban “pinch points” is as bad as it is on I-44.

There are several reasons I-70 is getting priority, McKenna said. It is the oldest interstate highway in the state system and more in need of general reconstruction. An environmental study done 20 years ago is faster to update than an entirely new study.

And the plan proposed by Parson is based on available resources and identified needs. It does not fund the entire project, McKenna noted.

“They looked at those very things on those rural stretches of I-70,” McKenna said of Parson’s staff “And they didn’t believe that at this time adding general revenue for those specific sections would be the right way to go.”

The Highways and Transportation Commission supports an appropriation for an environmental study of I-44, McKenna said.

“We’d focus on those areas like Springfield and Joplin, where you have similar issues,” McKenna said. “And that’s the approach that we’re trying to take, to identify and deal with the problems that we have today.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.