By Jeff Fox

Missourians face stark choices on funding for roads and bridges, state officials say, and Interstate 70 figures prominently in those discussions.

“We cannot move forward with our existing transportation funding,” David Nichols, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said Thursday as the department unveiled a nearly final long-range plan.

Joe Carmichael, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, put it this way: The department sees about $71 billion in needs over the next 20 years and $17 billion to address them.

“And so there are going to have to be some decisions made about what is possible,” he said.

The Missouri General Assembly convenes in two months, and some legislative leaders have said transportation fund needs to be addressed.

MoDOT has had two bursts of funding in recent years. Voters in 2004 approved bonds for road work, but that bonding capacity is about gone.

Then, a lesser amount of money came out of federal stimulus funds in response to the recession. For example, that gave MoDOT the money to rebuild the I-70/I-435 interchange and upgrade the area around it. That money also is now gone.

So MoDOT’s math is this: $1.25 billion a year for roads and bridges is falling to $700 million, and without new funds will fall to $425 million by 2019.

“We will not even be able to do preservation of our highways as they are today,” Nichols said.

I-70 alone is a $2 billion to $4 billion issue, as Nichols described it. The 200 miles – the four-lane part – from Missouri 7 in Blue Springs to I-64 in the St. Charles area needs to be widened, officials have said for years.

One option – adding a lane dedicated to trucks – would cost $4 billion. Nichols said officials are leaning toward the simplest, cheapest approach: One a lane each way, within the current right of way, and rebuild most of the interchanges, at a cost of $2 billion. That could be done in about five years, he said.

Officials floated the idea of making I-70 a toll road a couple of years ago, but that went nowhere politically.

“That died a horrible ... death, and it probably won’t re-emerge,” Carmichael said.

Similarly, the General Assembly has shown little support for a statewide sales tax, although a private group is petitioning to get that on the ballot. The point, Carmichael said, is that funding options are coming off the table.

“This commission is not going to dictate how Missourians pay for their future. That’s not our role,” he said, adding that legislators and citizens have to make those decisions.

The long-range plan does list “corridor and interchange improvements” on I-70 from I-435 east to I-470 in Independence to move traffic more quickly and safely, at a cost of $200 million to $225 million.

I-70 has six lanes from the Kansas line east to Missouri 7, and MoDOT officials have said for some time adding lanes is cost-prohibitive and other options – closing some Kansas City interchanges, for example – are being considered. Nonetheless, the plan lists the idea of going to eight lanes in downtown Kansas City, at a cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

It also puts the cost of going from four lanes to six from Missouri 7 east to Oak Grove at $40 million to $45 million, and then another $40 million to $45 million to go on to Odessa.

Thousands of projects

The 20-year plan grew out of MoDOT canvassing people across the state in a variety of settings to get citizens’ ideas – and more than 12,000 of those came in.

Nichols said those generally fell in four areas:

• Focus on taking good care of the roads and bridges now in place.

• Continue making safety improvements. For example, highway deaths continue to fall – 1,257 in 2005, 826 last year – but are still too high, he said.

“That’s alarming, and we have a lot of work to do in that area,” Nichols said.

• Stress economic development and jobs. Nichols said improved access to the Ford Claycomo plant was a good example.

• Invest state money “in all modes of transportation,” Nichols said. He said MoDOT’s budget is essentially a road-and-bridge budget, “and it’s time to change that.” The long-range, for example, lists some ideas for airports, trains and mass transit.

The plan lists thousands of projects statewide, including more than 400 in the Kansas City area, ranging from rebuilding I-435 ($500 million to $1 billion) to a new terminal at the Lee’s Summit airport (up to $4.1 million) to adding a bike trail on the old Rock Island line from Pleasant Hill to Kansas City ($15 million to $20 million).

In Eastern Jackson County, the projects include:

• Improving the intersection at Missouri 291 and 23rd Street in Independence ($500,000 to $750,000).

• Widening and making safer Missouri 7 from Pink Hill north to U.S. 24 ($15 million to $20 million).

• Widening Missouri 78 to four lanes from Speck Road to Truman Road in Independence ($10 million to $15 million).

• Working on Missouri 7 from Missouri 78 north to Bundschu Road to make it accessible for walkers and bicyclists ($500,000 to $1 million).

Officials acknowledged the plan is just a start.

“But how do we pay for it,” Carmichael said, “and that’s the issue.”