Missouri House GOP scramble to spend I-70 expansion money on other projects
On one end of the Missouri Capitol, House Republicans seem poised to divvy up the money Gov. Mike Parson wants to use widening portions of Interstate 70 on a bunch of smaller projects.
Across the rotunda in the Senate, Appropriations Chairman Lincoln Hough is looking for ways to pour more money into the project to finance a statewide expansion of the highway.
On Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith released his ideas for revising Parson’s $51.6 billion budget proposal. He chopped out one a one of the governor’s biggest priorities: $859 million to widen about 55 miles of I-70 in the Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis regions.
Smith, R-Carthage, didn’t kill the proposal outright, but said the appropriation can wait for the capital spending bill that includes other big-ticket, multi-year building projects. And he said House members may have ideas for substitute projects.
One of those members is Rep. Don Mayhew, a Republican from Crocker who said Wednesday that he is preparing a list of projects for potential inclusion when the capital spending bill is debated. He is asking other House members to name projects from the department’s unfunded needs list for a possible slice of the money.
Mayhew is one of the state transportation department’s chief critics and is the sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would strip the Highways and Transportation Commission of authority over state road funds and put lawmakers in charge of highway spending.
Widening I-70 is not in that list of projects that will move to the revolving five-year funding plan as money becomes available, he noted.
“We’re talking about the things that MoDOT themselves think is a higher priority than these three projects on I-70,” Mayhew said. “All I’m asking for is that we follow the planning process that we’ve established.”
On Thursday, other members of the House budget committee will debate Smith’s plan and offer amendments of their own to the 13 bills in the operating budget. The full House is expected to debate the budget next week.
It will be extremely difficult for members who would like to see the project stay in the operating budget to restore the money. Smith’s opposition is one obstacle, and the way he enforces the rules is another.
Under the rules of the House, no amendment increasing or adding a spending item from general revenue is allowed unless a corresponding cut is made. Smith enforces that rule, written for floor debate, in committee work, so only money he put in his proposed substitutes is available.
“He does tend to strip available general revenue out of the budget to prevent members from being able to use it,” said Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester.
MoDOT estimates that adding a lane in each direction to I-70 from Wentzville to Blue Springs would cost $2.7 billion to $3 billion. Parson’s proposal taps a chunk of the massive state general revenue surplus, currently about $5 billion, for the project.
A potential candidate for Parson’s job, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, has proposed an even larger plan, using up to $9 billion of surplus over many years to make it a four-lane highway in each direction.
Hough’s more modest approach would be three lanes in each direction, using the money requested by Parson to get the project started and borrowing enough to finish it. Like the $301 million bridge bonds program approved by lawmakers in 2019, the repayment period could be short to save on interest, Hough said.
“I want to see us actually do big, transformative projects in this state,” Hough said. “I don’t want to see us put another bandaid on failing infrastructure.”
The annual costs for retiring bonds, on a 15-year repayment plan, would be about $170 million, Hough said. The bridge bonds, with a payment of about $45- to $50 million annually, will be repaid by 2026, he said, and MoDOT could dedicate maintenance savings on rebuilt sections to the repayment as well.
“Okay, now, you’re not going to instantaneously by starting this project, stop all of those repairs, but you will diminish the money that’s being spent on repairs,” Hough said.
The additional cost over current spending could be as low as $70 million annually, Hough said.
A benefit of finishing I-70 would be the ability to shift focus to Interstate 44, which has heavy truck traffic traveling from southwest Missouri to St. Louis. Hough said he would like MoDOT to do the environmental impact studies necessary to widen that highway.
Once I-70 is complete, lawmakers could consider whether to use the same financing scheme for I-44, he said.
“Obviously, I’ll be gone because of term limits,” Hough said. “But if we’re in a position a few years down the road after the construction is done on 70, and the environmental work then is done on I-44, then theoretically, you could start that project.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom.