Are Outdated Projections Driving I-70 Rebuild Plans?
With the defeat of Amendment 7, the transportation sales tax, the issue of how to fund Missouri’s statewide road system remains up in the air. Part of the reason that the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) needs more money is to fund the rebuilding of I-70, a multibillion-dollar mega-project. However, it is possible that MoDOT’s plan to rebuild and expand I-70 is excessive and based upon erroneous projections of increasing traffic.
MoDOT has exposed the need to rebuild I-70 for years. Its oldest sections are more than 55 years old, and much of the highway requires rebuilding from the ground up. But MoDOT is not just looking to rebuild I-70, they are also planning to expand it. MoDOT’s preferred plan would replace the pavement, expand the highway to at least three lanes on each side, construct a wide median, and replace interchanges. The plan is estimated to cost $3 billion. If Amendment 7 had passed, more than $1 billion (a quarter of all sales tax dollars going to the state road system) would have gone to improve I-70. Of that, $500 million would have gone to expanding the highway to three lanes from Wentzville to Independence.
MoDOT is so concerned with expanding I-70 because they projected traffic would almost double from 2007 to 2030. If I-70 does not add lanes, it would mean stop-and-go traffic across the state. Here is a chart of MoDOT’s projections:
MoDOT expected average daily traffic to increase roughly 2.5 percent per year from 2007 to 2030. If the growth in I-70 traffic follows the trend above, MoDOT is more than justified in its drive for more lanes. However, these increases are failing to materialize. For instance, in 2013, traffic should have been around 16 percent higher than it was in 2007. However, at most points along I-70, traffic was down. And lest one think this is a trend of the recession, 2007 traffic was around the same as 2000 traffic.
The idea that people are driving less, or at least not driving much more, should not surprise MoDOT. After all, they repeatedly say just that when requesting more dollars to spend on expanding rail and transit projects. If traffic on I-70 is not growing much now, and MoDOT expects people to drive less in the future, why hasn’t MoDOT updated its projections and plans for I-70? Claiming to need more money because people are driving less, while simultaneously needing money to handle traffic growth, seems like trying to have it both ways.
A more economical solution to the I-70 problem may be to rebuild the two-lane structure while addressing bottlenecks around places like Columbia. That might fit the needs of Missourians, while lessening some of MoDOT’s financial strain.