By James R. Campbell
Nevada Daily Mail
Opened Dec. 12 upon its redesignation as the former U.S. 71, Interstate 49 from Kansas City to Pineville is in much better shape than Missouri's other interstate highways, whose maintenance is an ongoing concern, the Missouri Department of Transportation and outgoing State Rep. Barney Fisher say.
Helping distribute goods and services around mid-America and to Canada, the 190-mile western Missouri route will await the completion of I-49-related projects in Arkansas and Louisiana for its potential to be fully realized, MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel said from Jefferson City.
Brendel said Missouri's share of federal gasoline tax revenues is not the problem because former Gov. Kit Bond got Congress to raise it to more than 90 percent when he served from 1973-'77 and 1981-'85. "Our interstates are in generally good shape, at least the driving surfaces," Brendel said last Thursday.
"We have underlying issues with aging infrastructure that will eventually have to be addressed. I-70 is our oldest and one of the oldest in the nation. It has served us well because we've maintained it, but it's more than 30 years past its design life.
"We have mainline and crossroad bridges on I-70 that are nearing the end of their serviceable lives and at some point will have to be replaced."
Citing a probable cost of $2 billion to $4 billion, the official said MoDOT was encouraged by state legislators' spring 2012 discussions of making I-70 a toll road and by last summer's hearings on state transportation needs. "As developments have grown up around the traffic interchanges, a lot of them don't work very well anymore," Brendel said.
"When you make that type of investment, you want to do it in alignment with a road that serves for another 75 years. I-44 from St. Louis to Oklahoma is 10 years behind I-70, but it has some of the same problems.
"We get an 80-20 split from the federal government on most interstate projects, but they aren't going to bail Missouri out because our system has needs.
"I-44 will be in about the same ballpark of $2 billion to $4 billion."
Brendel said I-70, covering 250 miles from Kansas City to St. Louis, and I-44 have been well-maintained by the cities, but no capacity has ever been added to their rural stretches. Designed for 12,000 to 18,000 vehicles a day, I-70 now carries 23,000 to 100,000, he said.
I-44 runs 300 miles southwest from St. Louis to the Oklahoma line near Miami.
Fisher expects MoDOT to do a good job of maintaining the new interstate through Vernon County. "I-49 has interstate status, so they will be able to keep it up with federal assistance," the Nevada Republican said last Friday.
"I have confidence that they'll be able to maintain it."
Fisher said toll roads "are always a possibility, but not a strong one.
"I wouldn't have voted for it," he said. "I think it would have to come from the ballot, not the General Assembly.
"The state recently paid off a $600 million bond and we have a Triple-A rating. I don't see the gas tax going up and the tobacco tax failed, so if anything is done for MoDOT, it will probably come from a bonding issue or by way of the federal government."
Fisher said MoDOT's estimate of a total cost of $4 billion to $8 billion to modernize I-70 and I-44 "is the champagne diet, not the beer diet.
"I don't know how much they'd need, but toll roads are highly unpopular with the trucking industry," he said. "A trucker will tell you, 'I already pay $15,000 a year in tolls, taxes and fees and I don't want to pay any more.'
"We have a strong trucking industry in Southwest Missouri."