Tolling Coming to I-70?
With the prospect of a fuel tax increase looking more and more remote in the Missouri Legislature, policymakers are once again looking to the possibility of tolling I-70 as a method of staving off an impending funding crisis at the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
Tolling would be an effective way of raising funds to rebuild the aging I-70, with only those using the new highway paying for its reconstruction and maintenance. Tolls can be set higher for vehicles that do more damage to the roads, like interstate trucks, which on many parts of I-70 make up more than a quarter of total traffic, as the chart below demonstrates:
Furthermore, if the state would lease I-70 to a private entity, it potentially would generate billions for MoDOT. To get an idea of just how much a toll road can be worth, a 66-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road (with similar traffic levels to I-70) is in the process of being sold for $5.7 billion. If Missouri can raise even a small fraction of that amount, MoDOT could retire Amendment 3 debt and ensure sufficient matching funds for federal dollars. A bill in the Missouri Senate, SB 534, sets up the framework to make this kind of lease possible.
Using a public private partnership to rebuild I-70 is not without pitfalls. If the state does not ensure competitive bidding or make sufficiently stringent lease requirements, the project could come out poorly for highway users. Furthermore, using large upfront lease payments on I-70 to bail out the rest of the state highway system will require higher tolls so that the private company can recoup its costs. In essence, I-70 drivers would pay for both I-70 and other state roads. That being said, given many examples of successful privatization in Missouri, as well as numerous privately operated highways worldwide, Missouri can and should navigate these obstacles.
Using a public private partnership to toll I-70 would be a big step forward for Missouri, and lease payments could be used to plug short-term gaps in MoDOT funding. However, without more extensive use of tolling (not currently allowed under federal law), it would be best for the state to combine a small gas tax increase now with plans to increase use of tolling in the future.