Road to the future
We read your recent editorial regarding the last meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission with interest that turned to chagrin. We in the Department of Transportation share your appreciation for Commissioner Duane Michie. In his brief time on the panel he has demonstrated insatiable curiosity, strong business acumen and lots of Missouri down-home common sense. He has been here a bit longer than you realize, however. While you stated that last week was his first commission meeting, it was actually his fourth. He attended his first meeting in December in Kansas City and he has attended each monthly meeting since then.
Commissioner Michie did raise legitimate questions about the costs of studies on Interstate 70, but not questions we hadn't previously asked ourselves. It's worth noting, as Commissioner Barry Orscheln pointed out during the meting that work on Interstate 70 began long before Commissioner Michie was appointed to the board. The Commission previously authorized $3 million in environmental and feasibility studies and last week agreed to go forward with additional studies costing $16 million.
On the surface that might not seem to make sense since there is no source of funding right now that would pay the estimated $2.5 to $3 billion it would cost to upgrade I-70. But the truth of the situation is deeper than that.
If Missouri wishes to obtain most of the cost of upgrading I-70 from the federal government instead of footing the entire bill itself, it must abide by federal laws. Those laws require both sets of studies that have been approved by the Highway Commission. The studies involve environmental issues and give members of the taxpaying public input into the final configuration and placement of the road.
It is important to note that - contrary to the assertion in your editorial - these studies do not constitute useless spending that does little to improve the roadways in the state. The studies are far from useless. When federal funding is involved (and our congressional delegation is good at getting it for us), the only states that receive this money are those that have projects studied, designed and ready to go when the federal till is opened.
Missouri understands how vitally important I-70 is to the economic well being of this state and to the central regions of the country. It would be fiduciary folly for us not to be prepared to take advantage of federal funding when it becomes available to restore I-70 to the vital economic link it needs to be for all of Missouri's success.
Please permit me to enumerate some of the reasons why that critical link must be repaired as soon as funding can be obtained to do so. Interstate 70 is the nation's oldest interstate. Designed in the 1950s and completed in 1965, parts of it are nearly 50 years old, and the newest sections are 36 years old. It was designed with a 20-year life expectancy - a point that we passed a long time ago. (You could say our studies - and funding - are late, but they're certainly not early!)
Interstate 70 is critical to cross-state and cross-country truck and automobile travel.
MoDOT began its studies of I-70 for three reasons, all linked to ultimate federal funding: safety, because of increasing levels of traffic, including more and more trucks; condition, because of the aging nature of the pavement resurfacing now is just a Band-Aid attempt to hold the pavement together; and capacity. By 2030, projections indicate that none of the corridor will be functioning properly. Some areas are far above capacity now.
The $16 million project is actually seven smaller studies, each one centered in a local area where local issues can be resolved and the ultimate footprint for the facility can be determined. Even if we currently had funding for construction, it would take us 10-30 years to build it (depending on how quickly the funding comes in, and whether or not we get authority to use design-build). During those 10-30 years, we have to hold the road together, if possible, or replace sections that fail.
Proper studies can prevent us squandering money between now and then. Proper studies will set the framework for the ultimate improvement project and help us not spend money in patchwork efforts that would only have to be torn out when the final upgrade is done. The current four-laning of Highway 60 is an excellent example. Had we not studied it years ago, we would not now be engaged in its construction.
If you were building a home, surely you would study the local zoning regs, whether or not your land is in a floodplain, and numerous other factors before committing your hard-earned dollars to something you plan to use for a long, long time. It's only prudent to do the same with highways. Every highway in your part of the state was studied before it was built. And each one has to be studied before it is significantly improved.
Your editorial correctly notes that I-70 is critical to the state. And studies are critical to the future improvement of I-70.
Henry Hungerbeeler, director
Missouri Department of Transportation