JEFFERSON CITY — The largest road construction project in state history — nearly $3 billion to rebuild Interstate 70 across Missouri — now only needs the signature of Gov. Mike Parson, who championed the project.
It is part of the record $51 billion state budget the legislature passed on May 12.
Legislative leaders from both political parties hailed the landmark achievement. Lawmakers, the Missouri Department of Transportation and Missourians have long been aware of the need to fix the interstate.
A MoDOT newsletter from spring 2003 — 20 years ago — says, “Ask any Missouri resident about transportation problems in the state, and they’ll almost certainly mention I-70.”
At a press conference on May 12 after the budget passed, Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said many aspects of planning and design for the project have been completed. He suggested that work could begin this fall or early winter.
“Maybe I should apologize up front for the traffic,” Hough said, “but I think the end result is gonna be something that, quite frankly, generationally, will transform that artery across the state.”
Funding the work
The I-70 project has a projected $2.8 billion price tag. The money to pay for it will come from two sources: half from the current state budget surplus (more than $5 billion) and half from bond revenue.
Bond revenue is borrowed money that gets paid back to bondholders with interest. In this case, the state plans to borrow $1.4 billion to pay for half the project. Interest payments are projected at around $135 million each year for the next 15 years.
It was Hough, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, who formally announced the project funding plan at a committee meeting in April.
At the May 12 press conference, Hough said $2.8 billion “is our absolute best estimate right now given the cost of these projects all around the country.” The number, he said, was reached through conversations with MoDOT, the state’s Office of Administration and contractors.
Hough said I-70 will be rebuilt between Kansas City and Wentzville, and the project duration is estimated at six or seven years.
Earlier in the week, MoDOT officials withheld comment on project plans until the budget was passed with a known project funding amount.
Wednesday, at the regular monthly meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna called the legislature’s potential funding of I-70 expansion a “historic consideration.”
“We can do big things,” said McKenna. “We have the people, we have the team here at MoDOT. We certainly have incredible expertise with our construction industry partners and engineering firms in the state.”
McKenna said Parson has shown leadership in his “bold vision for investment in I-70.”
Parson called the I-70 expansion project funding the “the largest investment in decades ... a once in a lifetime opportunity” in his January State of the State address. At that time, he asked the legislature to approve $859 million to widen and rebuild I-70 in three key areas in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.
Parson suggested that “connecting the dots” with expansion along the full corridor would fall to a future administration.
In March, Parson said, “If we don’t get it done now, it’s probably not going to happen. It’s that simple.” That sentiment was reflected by leaders of both parties, who spoke frequently this year about the unique opportunity to use the state’s budget surplus for a dramatic investment in infrastructure.
In the end, the legislature sent Parson an I-70 plan that’s nearly $2 billion above his ask and advances the opportunity to build up the critical interstate corridor, a vital lifeline for commerce across the state.
On May 12, the Missourian asked for Parson’s comment on the plan heading to his desk. His communications director, Kelli Jones, replied in an email: “Infrastructure is one of Governor Parson’s priorities. Money spent to improve I-70 is well spent money for Missouri.”
Parson’s legacy will include the I-70 expansion along with the aggressive Focus on Bridges program that targeted 250 bridges across the state needing repair or replacement. In March, Parson attended the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission monthly meeting where the commission announced that a contract had been awarded for every project.
Overcoming hard feelings
Approval of the massive project came despite some hard feelings between the legislature and MoDOT, exacerbated by a lawsuit filed by MoDOT seeking authority for agency pay raises the legislature had not approved.
An effort by vocal MoDOT critic Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, to put MoDOT’s normal highway construction funds under lawmakers’ control appears to have lost steam. Senate leadership hasn’t allowed Mayhew’s legislation to advance since a public hearing in April.
That same month, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the resolution would have a hard time passing the Senate. And, he said, the legislature shouldn’t let frustrations with MoDOT derail an opportunity to rebuild I-70.
On the House floor on May 12, Republican Rep. Cody Smith, the House Budget Committee chairman, introduced the budget bill with the I-70 funding: “This represents the single greatest investment into our transportation network in the state’s history.”
In an interview after the House passed the budget, Smith talked about the tension between the legislature and MoDOT.
“What the two parties agree upon is that we need to invest in our transportation infrastructure,” Smith said.
“I believe the two parties can come together for the greater good to resolve differences and continue to work together,” he said. “I’m optimistic about how this will turn out.”
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