In his own feeble way, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon apparently is pushing for making I-70 a toll road between the outskirts of Kansas City and the outskirts of St. Louis.
The Star had a front-page story about this development on Saturday. The news “peg,” as we call it in the business, was that Nixon recently received a report from the Missouri Department of Transportation examining options for levying tolls on I-70.
But reporter Brad Cooper didn’t directly bring the governor into the story — quoting him, that is — until deep in the story.
At that point, Cooper quoted Nixon as telling the transportation department, in some sort of statement, that the state’s “transportation funding is approaching a critical juncture.”
The story then paraphrased Nixon as saying that one of Missouri’s most pressing infrastructure needs is forming a belt across the country’s midsection from Utah to Maryland.
That’s the best Cooper could do regarding Nixon’s supposed backing of an I-70 sales tax. Cooper apparently made no effort to interview Nixon or get something from a spokesman.
In any event, if you’ll notice, nowhere in the direct quote or the paraphrase did Nixon actually come out and say that he either favors an I-70 toll or that he would campaign for it if a measure was put to a statewide vote.
Besides this being a lame story, my point is that the governor’s position seems equally lame.
Here’s the crux of the matter. In my view, Missouri voters probably tilt heavily against tolls on I-70 in any event, and the only possible way such a measure would pass is if Nixon put his full weight behind it (what little political weight he has left after Ferguson, anyway) and campaigned relentlessly for it.
But I cannot envision him doing that.
We’ve seen enough of Nixon to know how he operates: He throws out trial balloons occasionally; they float under the clouds for a while; and then they run out of air.
The only thing Nixon has actively campaigned for in his political career, as fas as I can tell, is his own election and re-election.
So, unless the Missouri General Assembly can impose a toll through the legislative process (predictably, Cooper’s story didn’t address that), this proposal probably won’t go very far.
That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t have some merit and isn’t worth serious consideration. Missouri voters have defeated two or three sales-tax proposals in the last decade or so to boost funding of the state’s transportation needs, but voters have defeated each of them decisively.
Also, the Republican-dominated General Assembly seems completely disinterested in giving voters the opportunity to vote on a proposed increase in the state’s gas tax. The gas tax has stood at 17 cents a gallon, one of the lowest rates in the nation, since 1996. A gas tax increase is clearly the best way to fund statewide transportation projects (and what could be a better time than now, with gas prices so low?) but since when has reason and common sense prevailed in the Missouri General Assembly?
Given the political darkness that Missouri is stumbling through, an I-70 toll might be the best way to go.
One person who is open to that possibility is my friend Tom Shrout, leader of the committee that campaigned against a three-quarter-cent, transportation sales tax proposal that voters defeated in August by 59 percent to 41 percent.
For more than 20 years, Shrout was executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, a nonprofit organization based in St. Louis. Now, he and his wife Debra have a consulting company that organizes community support for improved public transit.
In an email, Shrout said:
“I think tolls can be sold to the Missouri electorate, but it will take a professional education campaign prior to a ‘vote yes’ campaign. I’m thinking radio, TV, newspaper in addition to community meetings. Direct mail, social media, etc. would come in the ‘vote yes’ campaign, in addition electronic and social media. Polling would be critical.”
Shrout said that a potentially deep source of campaign funds would be the Show-Me Institute, a conservative think tank headed by retired St. Louis area businessman Rex Sinquefield.
Sinquefield has thrown millions of dollars into several terribly bad proposals, including one to eliminate the Kansas City earnings tax (fortunately, it failed badly). But he and his Show-Me colleagues worked against the transportation sales tax and would seem to look favorably on an I-70 toll.
Shrout said that if supporters of tolls on I-70 are serious about putting it to a statewide vote, they should get cracking.
Proponents of the transportation sales tax spent $4 million last summer talking about the desperate need for increased transportation funding, and Shrout said toll-road proponents need to “build on the investment and get the funding mechanism right and the projects right.”
Another important campaign element, Shrout said, would be emphasizing how easy and practical toll collection could be.
“A few years back, Debra and I paid our toll in New Zealand over the Internet after we got back from our excursion,” he said. “You have a grace period to get it paid. Regulars have onboard transponders that automatically deduct the toll.”
I’d be interested to know what you readers think about the prospect of an I-70 toll. Personally, I’m ambivalent. I hate driving on the Kansas Turnpike, even when I just go between here and Lawrence. It’s not the money that bothers me; it’s feeling like I’m held hostage on I-70 and can only use the “Lawrence Service Area” to go to the bathroom or get something to drink. (The prices are inordinately high, too.)
On the other hand, I do like the fact that those who use I-70 the most — our friends, the truckers — would pay the most. Also, it seems like a fair way to pay for redoing the most important and heavily used road in the state. As Cooper’s story noted, about 60 percent of the state’s population and jobs are located within 30 miles of I-70.
So, tell me what you think. Let the informal survey begin.