- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is reviving the potential for tolls on Interstate 70, asking state transportation officials to analyze the option as part of a plan to rebuild the cross-state highway.

Nixon sent a letter Tuesday to the state transportation commission requesting a report by the end of the year on the possibility of using tolls “to improve and expand I-70 and to free-up resources” for other roads and bridges.

Highway officials have said the heavily traveled interstate between St. Louis and Kansas City is in need of a complete makeover and have talked for years about widening it to six total lanes.

Voters in August defeated a proposed three-quarter-cent sales tax for transportation that would have helped finance a $1.5 billion rebuilding of I-70 along with hundreds of other projects. That led some state transportation officials to warn of a potential rise in traffic fatalities and bridge closures if Missouri is unable to pay for needed maintenance.

As recently as a few years ago, Missouri was spending $1.3 billion annually on roads and bridges due to a surge of bond-induced revenues. But contracts are projected to fall to $325 million by 2017 and remain at that level. The department has said it needs to spend at least $485 million annually just to keep roads and bridges in good repair - and that doesn’t account for any major new projects.

“Missouri’s transportation funding is approaching a critical juncture,” Nixon said in a written statement Tuesday. “That is why I am requesting that the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission analyze and provide options for utilizing tolls to address one of our most pressing transportation infrastructure needs - improving and expanding Interstate 70.”

Federal law generally prohibits tolls from being imposed on existing interstate highways. But a state transportation department spokeswoman said Tuesday that Missouri has provisional approval from the federal government to pursue it.

Nixon also said a public-private partnership could be used for I-70 - an idea that has been floated in the past.

In 2012, the transportation department proposed an arrangement in which a private firm would rebuild the interstate and collect tolls from drivers to recoup its investment. The department director said at the time that similar projects in other states had resulted in tolls of 10 to 15 cents per mile, with large trucks paying two to three times more.

The Legislature took no action on that proposal, and it’s unclear whether there will be any greater interest in toll roads when a new group of lawmakers convenes in January for their annual session.

The Missouri Trucking Association said it’s opposed to tolls on I-70.

“This is something that’s been discussed for quite a while,” said Tom Crawford, president and CEO of the trucking group. “It’s been overwhelmingly rejected.”

A decade ago, some lawmakers proposed constitutional amendments asking voters to allow tolls on highways, but those measures failed to pass in the Legislature.

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