are we going
to do about I-70?
MoDot mulls over rebuilding an
aging Interstate 70 and how to pay for it
by Jeff Joiner
Wearing a bright
orange safety vest and with his back to traffic, Tommy Brown spreads hot
oil over cracks in a lane of Interstate 70 in Blue Springs. At times Brown
is working within a foot of traffic in the next lane speeding by at better
than 65 mph.
workers fill cracks on a lane of I-70 in Blue Springs. The interstate,
the first built in the country, was originally designed for fewer,
slower and lighter vehicles.
So much for "Give
them a brake," the slogan adopted by MoDot to encourage drivers to slow
down in highway construction zones.
"Oh, you get used
to it," says Brown as cars, pickups and tractor-trailer rigs buzz by with
such force that blasts of air grab at the MoDot maintenance crew.
"I don't think
much about it," Brown says.
from St. Louis to Kansas City face a daily battle they concede has been
lost. Designed to handle far fewer, lighter and slower vehicles, I-70
is worn out and needs fixed. The only problem is the fix is a $2 billion
to $3 billion, 20-year proposition that, as proposed, will dramatically
change the face of the nation's oldest interstate highway and the land
and communities around it.
"If you go out
where these potholes are and take a jack hammer and jack out the top layer
of asphalt you're going to have nothing but rotten, deteriorated concrete,"
says Terry Hufford, a 23-year MoDot veteran helping patch cracks with
the maintenance crew in Blue Springs. He points out numerous new pot holes
developing in areas freshly patched only a few weeks ago.
Department of Transportation officials are concerned with increasing
congestion on Interstate 70 where even in rural parts of the state,
like in this stretch near Odessa, traffic is heavy at times.
"It's job security,"
he says of his work trying to maintain a 30-year-old stretch of interstate.
Eisenhower established the interstate highway system in the 1950s and
Missouri was the first state to begin building the four-lane super-highways
designed originally for moving troops and military supplies in case of
The nation's first
section of interstate was built in St. Charles County in 1956. That part
of I-70 is now 45 years old.
"The life expectancy
of I-70 when it was built was only 20 years," says MoDot spokesman Jim
Coleman. "We've been able to extend the life of I-70 through maintenance
but now we've got a 200-mile section of old highway and you can only do
the Band-Aid approach for so long."
MoDot is now undertaking
an interstate highway project on a scale never attempted before. Rather
than fix or replace I-70 in bits and pieces, MoDot proposes to rebuild,
over 20 years, the interstate from Lake St. Louis to Blue Springs. The
interstate will be widened into six lanes across the entire width of Missouri.
The highway department
received a lot of attention last year when it held public meetings across
the state to discuss options proposed by a consulting firm hired to study
I-70. Though there were a number of options, the one receiving the most
attention was the construction of a limited access highway parallel to
I-70. Both the new and old highway would be used.
"By a more than
2-to-1 margin the public favored widening over the parallel highways,"
pavement, what could possibly make the highway department take on a 20-year
project with such a huge price tag? Any motorist traveling the interstate
soon realizes they share the road with thousands of fellow drivers and
Highway Patrol Trooper Bruce McLaughlin makes a traffic stop along
I-70 in Boone County. McLaughlin says the volume and speed of traffic
concern him and make his job more difficult, especially where the
interstate passes through a city like Columbia.
The problem of
congestion is especially apparent where I-70 passes through a city like
Columbia where cross-state traffic mixes with local drivers. It's a situation
that often gives Trooper Bruce McLaughlin nightmares.
"I-70 is not my
favorite place to work," says the patrolman with the Missouri State Highway
Patrol. "Maybe it's because
of the danger. It's difficult to work because the traffic flows are quite
Columbia, as well
as cities like Wentzville, Warrenton, and Wright City, have experienced
rapid growth in recent years which has led to serious congestion on I-70.
In Columbia it's estimated that 50,000 vehicles a day use the interstate
and that number is expected to grow to 90,000 by 2030.
Even in rural Lafayette County traffic is expected to double, increasing
to 60,000 vehicles a day by 2030.
Along with increases
in traffic comes more accidents. Estimates nearly double the number of
accidents occurring along many stretches of the interstate in the next
30 years if no changes are made in its design.
especially aware of congestion when making traffic stops. "Whenever we
pull a car over we're standing within inches of the road where cars are
driving by at 70 miles an hour. We're actually more likely to get hit
by a car than we are getting shot."
The highway department
will hold more public meetings this spring followed by a public hearing
later this year. Following comments gathered at the hearing the plan for
widening I-70 will go to the Federal Highway and Transportation Administration
for approval, which is necessary because the federal government typically
pays 80 percent of the cost of an interstate highway project.
Paying for the
state's portion of the multi-billion dollar project hasn't been addressed,
says Coleman, so itÔs not known when, or even if, the project, will get
"The plan for
I-70 exists as just an idea because right now no funding exists for it.
The federal government will provide the predominate share, but even the
state's share will be monstrous and we just don't have the money to do
have told the state's highway department their No. 1 concern about
Interstate 70 is safety and the number of accidents occurring on the
highway. Their second concern is growing congestion.
The only thing
for certain is the project is needed, says Coleman, and the rest will
be up to the Missouri Legislature which must decide how to fund it.
Changes in state
law may be necessary to make the project possible. Now the highway department
is only allowed to take bids on highway construction projects of 10 miles
doesn't know how to pay for it, but the MoDot maintenance worker knows
what needs to be done. "Take it down to bare ground and start over. That's
what I'd do."
MoDot has a
web site dedicated to the Interstate 70 improvement study and the latest
information on the plan's progress. The address is www.I70study.org.