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Rural Missouri Magazine

What 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.

MoDot maintenance 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.

Highway workers 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.

Missouri 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.

President Dwight 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 war.

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," says Coleman.

Besides crumbling 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 truckers.

Missouri State 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 high."

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.

McLaughlin is 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 underway.

"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 it."

Missourians 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 or less.

Terry Hufford 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.

 
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