The Future of I-70: “Not a Plan, But a Big Idea”
This week in Kansas City, Missouri’s transportation leaders held a meeting concerning the future of I-70. As we’ve discussed many times before, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) claims that I-70 will have to rebuild from the ground up, a multibillion-dollar project. Far from having the necessary funds for such an undertaking, MoDOT is in fact facing a funding crisis that might see it cut back on basic highway maintenance.
However, instead of delivering a concrete plan or slate of options for what might be done to improve I-70, Missouri State Highway Commissioner Stephen Miller outlined a grand vision for making I-70 the state’s first smart highway. He expressed a desire to coordinate with the private sector, so as to take advantage of innovative approaches to constructing and funding a new I-70.
Getting private companies and fresh thinking into the MoDOT planning and financing is an excellent idea. The commissioner correctly pointed out that MoDOT’s past experience with planning reform, such as the introduction of design-build contracts, has seen impressive projects come in under budget. And there are many exciting opportunities for adding value to a new I-70 and making efficiencies in its construction. Improved information technology and perhaps even designing a highway with self-driving vehicles in mind might propel I-70 to the forefront of highway design.
However, when it comes to funding highways, Missouri, far from reaching for the future, has been and continues to be a laggard. Open road tolling allows significant value capture from highways, creating a revenue stream for public private partnerships (PPPs) to not only design and build, but also to finance, operate, and maintain modern freeways. These types of toll roads already exist in many states (15 states are already part of one integrated system), including Missouri’s neighbors, but not in Missouri. In fact, Missouri does not even have the enabling legislation for PPPs to rebuild highways. High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes create revenue streams for the expansion of highways in other states, but not Missouri. Mileage based user fees (MBUFs), another innovative revenue source, is rolling out in Oregon; Missouri has yet to study the possibility.
In redesigning I-70, MoDOT is right to think the private sector can help build a better highway more efficiently. However, Missouri should not lose sight of the fact that modern funding mechanisms already exist in other states and around the world. While having a “smart highway,” whatever that turns out to be, may be great for Missouri, the state does not need to wait on futuristic solutions to fund a much-improved I-70. It really just needs to get with the times.