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Missouri governor’s plan for widening I-70 gets fully funded in proposed budget

In this photo made Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, a driver stays in the passing lane as traffic accumulates behind along I-70 in Montgomery County, Missouri.
Jeff Roberson
Associated Press
In this photo made Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, a driver stays in the passing lane as traffic accumulates behind along I-70 in Montgomery County, Missouri.

Gov. Mike Parson requested $859 million from the Missouri legislature to widen three sections of Interstate 70, including from Blue Springs to Odessa. But House Budget Committee chair Cody Smith says there's little chance of federal aid for the project.

The Missouri House Budget Committee will debate a plan for major construction spending that includes Gov. Mike Parson’s full request for money to widen three sections of Interstate 70.

Rep. Cody Smith, the committee’s chairman, released his revisions to the capital improvements appropriation bills on Tuesday and scheduled a committee debate Thursday on the four bills that pay for building maintenance and new construction.

Despite calls from some to divert a portion of the money to other projects, Smith included the $859 million sought by Parson for I-70. Smith’s proposal also includes $48 million for an environmental study on the Interstate 44 corridor and to widen a section of that highway in Springfield, as well as $41.3 million for work on several other roads.

Another big initiative in the budget is $272 million for construction projects on college campuses, either to cover a portion of the unmet cost for projects authorized last year or to fund other construction on a 50-50 match basis.

The biggest item on that list is $52.3 million for the University of Missouri to move ahead on plans to build a new research nuclear reactor in Columbia capable of producing treatments for cancer and other ailments. The university on Monday issued a call for contractors to bid on the management contract for the project.

Smith said he included Parson’s funding figure because it is the best estimate of the cost for the three sections of I-70 slated for improvement. The prospects for federal aid to offset the state’s cost is low, Smith said after releasing his plan.

The portions of I-70 to be widened are in the Kansas City region, from Blue Springs to Odessa, through Boone County near Columbia and from Warrenton to Wentzville on the east side of the state.

“I don’t think there’s really any way around getting those three pieces of I-70 done for approximately what we think that cost is,” Smith said.

The budget plan scrapped Parson’s $44 million proposal to purchase the Department of Transportation headquarters adjacent to the Capitol Building for use by other agencies. The plan for using the building is too uncertain, Smith said, and it is unclear how it will fit into other proposals for expanding space near the Capitol.

“I don’t think that’s quite clear at this time, so I don’t really see the need to purchase it,” Smith said.

The House has already passed a $45.6 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year that is awaiting action in the Senate. The four capital spending bills total $5.5 billion, with about half of that amount being reappropriated for projects authorized in prior years.

The budget committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis, said he was pleased Smith included the funding for I-70.

“There’s going to be some wide agreement that some large expenditure needs to happen on improving infrastructure on I-70,” Merideth said. “Whether it’s this proposal, or I think, the potentially much larger one that the Senate has in mind, I think is still going to be an open question.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, has said he would like to authorize enough money to widen I-70 across the entire state. He has said he wants to authorize a mix of surplus revenue and borrowed funding to complete the financing.

The I-70 project makes sense because it is an important route nationally as well as for the state, Merideth said. Democrats will be pushing to fund other transportation needs as well, he said.

“I’d love to see some real investment in public transit as well,” he said.

Smith’s proposal for capital spending would increase total general revenue used in the coming fiscal year to $13.9 billion, or about $325 million less that Parson’s budget plan. If revenue projections made in January are correct, Smith’s plan would use about $750 million of the state’s general revenue surplus of about $5 billion.

The January projection was for revenue to grow 1.4% in the current year and less than 1% in the coming fiscal year. But growth in the current year has remained robust – 11.3% through Monday afternoon. At that rate, the surplus would grow by $1.3 billion by June 30.

Smith said he is unwilling to dig further into the unspent funds.

“I’m a little less concerned with the state of revenues now and a little more concerned with writing the budget,” Smith said. “And after we get out of this session. We’ll continue to watch that and keep an eye on it for next year.”

Merideth, however, said the state’s unmet needs should be addressed with the surplus. The capital spending items are needed and he will support most of them, he said.

“They’re great, but they don’t address the underlying issue of we need to spend our revenue back into things that grow our state,” Merideth said, “and we need to keep up with the changing economy.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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