Illustration by Daniel Elchert
For many years, I’ve been ranting on television for Missouri to put tolls on its interstate highways.
Blissfully, I’ve been unburdened by facts to support my position—a time-honored Donnybrook tradition—but that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for what has always seemed a matter of common sense.
Besides being broke, the state is positioned dead center in the middle of the nation. Trucks and automotive tourists wanting to get from one side of the country to the other just about have to pass through, so why not get a little of their money in exchange for the wear and tear on our highways?
This is also a matter of personal experience. My family often travels over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house in Oklahoma. The first 285 miles of Interstate 44 are toll-free. Cross the border and one immediately begins paying the piper—on the same highway—that piper being the state of Oklahoma.
That’s real smart. Why, I wondered, are we so far behind our, ahem, progressive neighbor to the southwest?
So I set out on a rare hunt for the facts, blazing the journalistic trail to find a passionate interest group or two that could offer some talking points to glean easily. My mission was to learn why my instincts were right on target after all.
I looked and I looked and I could not find evidence of any organized effort to beat the drums for tolls in Missouri. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to rise up and challenge The Man, who wanted to shake the state’s giant, uncaring governmental bureaucracy to its core and demand progress for the people.
Here’s what I found instead: A “Man Bites Dog” story in the world of governance. I found a revolution in reverse.
The only entity that is passionate for the dynamic and progressive solution of tolling Missouri’s interstates is none other than the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
Isn’t that The Man? Isn’t that the uncaring governmental bureaucracy whose name is taken in vain—at least in times of gridlock—by inconvenienced motorists and inconsolable local politicians alike?
Yes, that MoDOT.
The mind-boggling reality is that MoDOT offers the only passionate voice today on the subject of Missouri tolling. The bureaucracy is trying to rise up and shake the people to their core. The bureaucracy is demanding progress from the people.
What do we want?
We want the citizens to wake up!
When do we want it?
This is very strange. And the more you look, the stranger it gets.
MoDOT hasn’t just talked the talk. In 2005, it successfully cleared the mighty hurdle of receiving “conditional approval” from the federal government for tolling authority on Interstate 70. The original legislation creating the interstate system mandated there would be no tolling on interstates, other than toll highways that were already completed or under construction at the time.
But those restrictions have been relaxed over time, and the Federal Highway Administration now occasionally authorizes tolling to fund purposes such as rebuilding aging interstates. Missouri was one of just three states given such authority at the time.
Victory at last! Missouri can leave the ranks of the minority of states—about 20—that still receive no revenues directly from the users of their roads.
It turns out that “conditional approval” meant “conditional” on MoDOT receiving tolling authority from its own state government, says Jay Wunderlich, MoDOT’s governmental relations director. And that meant tolling had to be approved by that rascally state legislature of ours.
Hello, trucking lobbyists. Hello, convenience-store industry lobbyists.
“All we want is the chance to get voter approval for toll roads, and the legislature won’t even bring it up,” says Wunderlich. “Tolling didn’t go anywhere because of the opposition from the commercial motor carriers and convenience-store operators in the state of Missouri.”
He says the agency had a good champion “carrying the flag” in the state Senate, but he still couldn’t get tolling authorization out of committee. And it didn’t even get into committee in the House.
So this is about the point where the likes of me rail against the right-wing Republican legislators and their lobbyist friends. It was time to call upon MoDOT’s liberal champion, that fellow “carrying the flag” for progress.
That would be state Sen. Matt Bartle, R–Lee’s Summit.
Yes, our pro-toll progressive is the same Matt Bartle whose greatest claim to fame may have been removing nudity from Missouri strip clubs. The same guy who was one of just a few Republican senators to support Tea Party favorite Chuck Purgason in his unsuccessful right-flank quest to challenge that wild-eyed liberal, Roy Blunt, in the Republican senatorial primary last month.
“Sen. Bartle,” I asked, “what’s a conservative, antitax guy like you doing out there for tolls?”
I’m not making up his response:
“I think there are a lot of guys like me who may be right-wing wackos, but we’re fiscally conservative, and this is about being fiscally conservative,” Bartle said.
“Did you just call yourself wacko?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t really think I’m wacko, but there’s others that say that, and my point is that if a guy as socially and fiscally conservative as I am sees this, so should everyone else,” Bartle said. “Plain and straight, I-70 is broken. Its underpinnings are decrepit, it’s mush under the surface, and it’s falling apart.
“There’s a 100 percent chance that I-70 will never be rebuilt or expanded to six lanes without tolls. Tolls are the only way to bring the No. 1 artery of our state into the 21st century.”
Bartle says he holds out hope that tolling opponents will come around “eventually” when I-70 deficiencies translate into delays and safety issues for the truckers.
An eloquent wacko, methinks. Give it up for my new hero, Matt Bartle.
Should we start being sad that he is being term-limited out of office at the end of the year? Unless someone else comes forward—from the right or the left—to “carry the flag” for MoDOT, the answer to that question might be “Yes.”
This is a strange story.
Now here are some facts that Missourians need to grasp, and in a hurry:
• Missouri’s interstate highways are aging and in trouble. MoDOT estimates that it needs $3 billion to fix I-70 and $3.5 billion to fix I-44. It’s short more than those totals.
• The current funding authority for I-70 tolling could expire the next time Congress passes a Transportation Act.
• Missouri is not going to raise its fuel taxes anytime soon. This is a state whose Democratic governor can’t bring himself to consider thinking about perhaps listening to a discussion of possibly reviewing the fact that the state has the second-lowest tobacco taxes in America.
• A 2005 study by the national Tax Foundation found that the states with tolling averaged $27.39 per capita in toll revenue. That 6-year-old number would translate to $164 million annually to Missouri (minus expenses). Neighboring Illinois and Oklahoma both collect tolls at almost double that per-capita rate.
• In a MoDOT survey of state residents on transportation, tolling (25 percent) outpolled sales taxes (21 percent), fuel taxes (16 percent), car registration and license fees (10 percent), and a vehicle-mileage travel tax (10 percent) as the “most acceptable” way to raise more highway funds, if needed.
There is no question that Missouri should embrace tolling as a dramatically effective solution to its long-term highway problems. It’s the fairest way to pay for interstate-highway reconstruction, because the funds come directly from the users.
MoDOT estimates that more than 10,000 trucks travel I-70 daily, and that more than 75 percent of those trucks go from one end of the state to the other. Typically states get at least three times as much toll revenue per mile from trucks as they do from cars, which is only fair, seeing as how trucks weigh about 20 times as much as cars.
These trucks damage highways, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them to help pay for that damage directly. Why should they pay for I-70 in Kansas (which they do) and not Missouri?
The same can be said for the thousands of cars traveling daily across the state.
Why shouldn’t people just passing through the state pay their fair share?
Unlike highway taxes and other forms of revenue collection, tolling could be structured to receive a greater portion of revenue from out-of-state sources. That could be achieved by simply limiting the number of toll stations on I-70—perhaps to six or fewer—so that local residents traveling less than the distance between those stations wouldn’t ever pay a toll.
For example, if the first booth heading west on I-70 didn’t occur, say, until west of Wentzville, most St. Louisans wouldn’t encounter tolls in their daily lives. Someone getting on I-70 at I-270 and driving east to downtown would never pay a toll in that example. There’s also the possibility of discounts on the basis of frequency for local residents who did pay tolls.
It’s not lawful—nor should it be—to charge out-of-state users higher toll rates, but there are plenty of ways to make tolling function as a form of net income to the state, and not simply a new tax on residents. There is also much new technology (e.g., transponders in cars) that can make tolling far less time-consuming and costly to administer than ever before.
Tolling isn’t a perfect solution to raising new money for government—nothing is—but it makes far more sense than traditional taxation, so much so that it isn’t a question of whether Missouri will embrace the concept. It’s a question of when the state is going to follow the lead of its MoDOT bureaucracy.
It needs to be sooner, rather than later.
SLM co-owner Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC-TV Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.