MoDOT welcomes private sector input on I-70

Missouri’s Department of Transportation is soliciting ideas from private industry as it looks to upgrade the oldest portion of the nation’s interstate highway system.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission (MHTC), part of the state's department of transportation (MoDOT), is soliciting ideas from the private sector both in terms of new technologies and innovative funding solutions for the upgrade of Interstate 70 (I-70).

The Commission wants “to make Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St Louis available to private industry, entrepreneurs and innovators as a laboratory for construction of the next generation of highways,” MoDOT said in a statement, referring to the 200-mile section of the interstate that runs across the state.

St Charles County is home to the oldest section of the interstate highway system, a 40,000-mile network spanning 10 states, built between 1956 and 1965.

“We're open to any and all ideas,” MHTC chairman Stephen Miller said.

Those could include tolling and delivering the project as a public-private partnership (PPPs; P3s), an option put forth by MoDOT in a white paper it released in January 2012, estimating $2 billion would be needed to replace all of the pavement and add lanes in the existing median.

That option was not implemented and the possibility of using tolls to fund improvements was re-introduced as recently as last December when Governor Jay Nixon instructed the Commission to once again explore the possibility.

No update has been given since. “There has been no momentum towards establishing tolls in Missouri since the Governor's request,” MoDOT spokesperson Bob Brendel told Infrastructure Investor. “No tolling bills were considered by the General Assembly during this last legislative session, either.” 

The Commission is said to remain open to the possibility, however. As Brendel emphasised, “Missouri does not have preconceived notions.”

“Even as we seek to boldly go where we have not gone before, we must stay firmly rooted in the realities of the moment,” Miller said. “And that is that we have insufficient funding to preserve our current system.” Miller puts forth a modest fuel tax increase, however, as a solution to the problem.

The state has very limited funds available. In February it approved a road and bridge plan “to work with a drastically reduced construction budget,” which will drop to $325 million in 2017.

According to Brendel, that's just enough to maintain – not upgrade – only a quarter of the system.

Yet in addition to I-70's advanced age, there is also the issue of increased traffic that drastically exceeds intended capacity. For example, the section that runs through Missouri was intended to carry between 12,000 and 18,000 vehicles per day. Today, the most heavily used section carries 98,000 vehicles.

“MoDOT has made keeping I-70's driving surface in good condition a priority,” the state agency wrote in the 2012 white paper. “Resurfacing treatments, though, don't last long because of the damage that exists beneath the surface. The original pavement – some of which dates back to sections of old US Route 40 that were built in the 1920s – has been pounded to bits by years of mounting traffic.”

Another concern is the bridges that cross over the highway, which are nearing the end of their useful lives, according to MoDOT.

On the other hand, and two states to the west, Colorado recently concluded that a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) model was the best way to improve its section of I-70, issuing a Request for Qualifications this past March.

Missouri is no stranger to P3s. In 2006, the state's General Assembly passed legislation enabling MoDOT to partner with the private sector in building the new Mississippi River Bridge, connecting Missouri with Illinois. The state does not currently have broad enabling legislation, however.