Next year could lead to the first actual use of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) pilot program to toll-finance the reconstruction of an Interstate highway-I-70 in Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon has asked the state’s Transportation Commission and Missouri Department of Transportation (DOT) to report back by the first of the year on a toll-financed reconstruction and widening plan for that aging Interstate. But unless the governor, MoDOT, and the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) do a better job of making the case, I fear this new attempt may go down in flames, as did a 2012 effort that was rejected by the state Senate.
Before getting into that problem, let’s review the specifics of what’s being considered. First, I-70 is one of the nation’s major truck freight routes, especially the corridor from Ohio’s eastern border to Kansas City. That stretch was designated by the U.S. DOT as a “Corridor of the Future” last decade, which led to a four-state feasibility study. As its name implied, the “I-70 Dedicated Truck Lanes Feasibility Study” assessed the business case for rebuilding those 800 miles of I-70 with the addition of dedicated truck lanes. Phase 1 of the study-carried out by CDM Smith and HNTB, with significant input from the American Trucking Associations Federation (ATRI) –concluded that there is a solid business case for doing so.
The study also quantified the construction and maintenance costs of this four-state mega-project, compared with a no-build scenario and reconstruction without adding dedicated truck lanes (DTLs). The three DTL scenarios ranged in total cost from $52 to $54 billion over an 80-year period, compared with $32 to $35 billion for the no-build and non-DTL scenarios. The major benefits-increased safety, much less congestion, increased truck productivity, and reduced emissions-established a solid business case for the DTL approach. The safety benefits included a 90% reduction in car-truck crashes and a 50% reduction in crashes in the general purpose lanes. The productivity gains and emission reductions stemmed in significant part from the use of “longer combination vehicles,” meaning long doubles and short triples-rigs that are banned from mixed traffic on most of the Interstate system.
I independently assessed I-70 as part of the 2013 Reason Foundation Interstate 2.0 study. Data I obtained from FHWA’s detailed Freight Analysis Framework showed that, without lane additions, by 2040 truck traffic on I-70 would constitute 34% of all its traffic in Missouri, 50% in Ohio, 55% in Indiana, and a whopping 107% in Illinois. For I-70 in Missouri, my estimate of the cost of reconstruction was $3.3 billion and the cost of adding four truck-only lanes was another $1.2 billion, totaling $4.5 billion. This was for the rural portion only, from just east of Kansas City to just west of St. Louis, which is the stretch noted in Gov. Nixon’s request. That’s a bit higher than the $4 billion estimate mentioned in recent media reports.
Phase 2 of the Corridors of the Future study concluded that the huge cost of rebuilding I-70 with DTLs could only be met via toll revenue financing, since no other funding source is anywhere in sight. It also concluded that the best way to procure such a set of mega-projects would be via long-term toll concessions. The Reason Interstate 2.0 study used conservative projections of car and truck traffic in each state to assess the toll-feasibility question. For the rural I-70 corridor in Missouri, with a toll rate schedule based on 3.5¢/mile for cars and 14¢/mile for trucks (both CPI-adjusted), the net present value of toll revenue (net of O&M costs) equaled 169% of the NPV of construction costs. If both the numerator and denominator are accurate, break-even toll rates could be as low as 2.1¢/mile for cars and 8.4¢/mile for trucks.
That is a hugely positive case for Missouri to proceed with the toll-financed reconstruction with DTLs as outlined in the CDM Smith/HNTB/ATRI study. But instead of stressing the safety benefits, congestion reduction, emission reductions, and freight productivity gains, how are proponents describing this project to the public? Here is how the AASHTO Journal, the weekly online news service of the organization representing all 50 state DOTs put it:
“In what could be one of the nation’s major tests for charging drivers direct user fees to run on existing Interstate highways, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon asked his state’s Highways and Transportation Commission to provide a tolling plan for I-70 by the end of the year.” [emphasis added]
And Kansas City television Channel 9, KMBC, described the governor’s proposal as “converting I-70 into a toll road.”
If the issue is framed as “charging tolls on existing Interstates,” it will very likely lose. Even if the Missouri Trucking Association backs (or fails to oppose) the proposal, it will come across to most citizens and legislators as simply heaping new costs on I-70 users. “Erecting toll booths on the Interstate” has been the standard theme of opposition to every previous attempt to actually use the FHWA pilot program to reconstruct and widen an aging Interstate. It is essential that transportation advocates refocus their outreach efforts on the benefits of a rebuilt and modernized I-70.
First, the $4 billion project would replace the existing 60-year-old Interstate with a brand new one, built better and managed better, with its own dedicated funding source to ensure adequate maintenance over its entire design life (or at least over the term of the long-term concession). Second, motorists would benefit greatly. In exchange for what should be a modest toll rate per mile, they will gain the comfort of driving apart from heavy trucks, with greatly increased safety and much less congestion. Third, trucking companies would benefit from the virtual elimination of car-truck accidents, heavier pavement permitting higher weight limits, and large productivity gains from being able to operate more-productive truck configurations, hauling more ton-miles per gallon of fuel (and hence with lower emissions per ton-mile).
If that case carries the day, Missouri will still need to enact tolling legislation and a state-of-the-art P3 enabling act. But those are details. The crucially important need at this point is to reiterate the business case for replacing obsolete 60-year-old I-70 with a far better I-70 for the 21st century.
Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. This column first appeared in Public Works Financing.