Rocky Road: Dispute over highway funding could lead to constitutional amendment

Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s 2024 state budget has sparked a debate over the future of how state funds its transportation infrastructure needs.

The initial budget proposition included setting aside $859 million to expand the number of lanes on I-70 in three areas: from Blue Springs to Odessa, in Columbia, and from Warrenton to Wentzville in St. Louis. However, this has raised the ire of some lawmakers.

The Missouri General Assembly has been vocal on wanting a say in how transportation funds are spent. As it stands now, they have very little.

In early March, the Missouri House Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment that would take state road funding control away from the transportation department and hand it over to lawmakers. It passed (101-45) and now the resolution heads to the Senate. If approved by the Senate, the measure would then head to the polls, where voters across the state will decide its fate. 

The charge was led by Representative Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, who chairs the House Transportation Accountability Committee. Mayhew noted that every government department besides the transportation department must present a budget to the legislature. The public presentation is the only time that citizens are able to voice concerns on budget allocations, Mayhew added.

Representative Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, who sits on the Missouri House Transportation Accountability Committee, opposes linking infrastructure funding to the often sluggish process that lives under lawmakers. He feels that funding for long-term transportation projects cannot be at the mercy of an annual budgeting process.

Mayhew brought the resolution before the House because of a 2021 lawsuit by the Highway and Transportation Commission, which oversees MoDOT, after the Office of Administration did not approve of raises that went beyond what state lawmakers allocated for that year. The Commission’s lawsuit seeks the power to use state road funds that come from a variety of Missouri user fees, such as the gas tax, to pay for raises. A decision has not been made.

Opponents of Mayhew’s resolution argue that it’s politicizing important infrastructure funding. 

According to Linda Horn, MoDOT’s communications director, the transportation department has been studying and discussing the need to make improvements to I-70 across the state since the early 2000s.

“The safety and economic prosperity of Missourians depends, in part, on an I-70 that grows along with the state and nation,” she tells Kansas City magazine. “Today, many portions of the facility are strained beyond capacity and have outdated interchange designs, which increase delays and dampen economic activity.”

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver says that Missouri received a C- in the American Society of Civil Engineer’s grading of our state’s infrastructure, including a D+ for our roads.

As of now, the funding for I-70 expansion has been removed from the state’s 2024 budget and will be revisited separately.   

I-70’s Legacy

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which called for the construction of a 41,000-mile system of interstate highways. Missouri took the wheel, becoming the first state to break ground and start constructing its portion of the pioneering highway system of I-70 in St. Charles County near St. Louis on August 13, 1956, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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