First contract for widening I-70 approved by Missouri highways commission

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Jeff Gander, project director for the contract to widen Interstate 70 from Columbia to Kingdom City, explains what the $405 million plan will do during Wednesday’s meeting of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The first contract for reconstruction of Interstate 70, for a 20-mile stretch from Columbia to Kingdom City, was awarded Wednesday by the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.

The $405 million contract is part of a planned $2.8 billion project that will add a lane of traffic in both directions from Wentzville in St. Charles County to Blue Springs in Jackson County. The work awarded Wednesday to Millstone Weber for construction and Jacobs for engineering is expected to be finished by the end of 2027.

The entire I-70 project is expected to be completed by the end of 2030. The next sections to be contracted will be from Blue Springs to Odessa in western Missouri and from Wentzville to Warrenton on the eastern side of the state.

At a news conference after the commission vote, Missouri Department of Transportation officials and the contractors said there will be two lanes open for traffic in both directions across the state throughout the project, which should minimize delays for motorists.

“We promise we are not going to do anything to make people’s lives miserable,” said Thom Kuhn, president of Millstone Weber.

Lawmakers last year appropriated $2.8 billion, half from surplus general revenue and half from bonds to be issued as needed, for the biggest interstate construction program since the highways were first built in the 1950s and early 1960s. Widening and rebuilding I-70, the first interstate highway to be built in the nation, has been on MoDOT’s unfunded agenda for almost 20 years.

“We’ve been studying this corridor for decades,” MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said.

The section from U.S. Highway 63 in Columbia to U.S. Highway 54 at Kingdom City was chosen because other work has already been planned to rebuild both intersections. 

“That section really made sense for us to get a quick start and begin construction later this spring or early summer,” said Eric Kopinski, director of the Improve I-70 Program. “Had we looked at a larger section or incorporated a larger contract, our start would have been much delayed.”

The Columbia intersection of Highway 63 and I-70 is notorious for congestion, and the reconstruction plan anticipates redirecting as much of 60% of local traffic away from the rebuilt interchange.

There will be four roundabouts, a new bridge and a new collector road, project director Jeff Gander said.

“I know some of you may not understand a lot of that terminology, but it’s really cool and it’s going to work really really well because it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen, but it is going to function very well,” he said.

 Patrick McKenna, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, speaks at a news conference following approval of a $405 million contract to widen Interstate 70 from Columbia to Kingdom City. Standing behind McKenna, from left, are Gregg Smith, member of the Highways and Transportation Commission, Jeff Gander, project director, Thom Kuhn, CEO of Millstone Weber and Terry Ecker, chairman of the commission (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

The appropriation to rebuild I-70 is one side of a tumultuous relationship between lawmakers and MoDOT. Over the past several years, the legislature has approved an increased fuel tax to fund road work and delivered large general revenue appropriations for work that is outside the 5-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, or STIP, to maintain low-volume rural roads.

The difficult side of the relationship includes efforts to put MoDOT under more direct control of the General Assembly or governor. 

The biggest point of conflict between lawmakers and MoDOT is over a lawsuit filed by the commission seeking clarity about its authority to spend Road Fund money as it sees fit. The commission wants to implement a market-based pay plan to raise salaries so 65% of MoDOT employees are at or above the midpoint in the pay range for their job. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 89.4% were below the midpoint, according to state budget documents.

On Oct. 31,Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker ruled that a provision in the Missouri Constitution that states money deposited in the fund shall “stand appropriated without legislative action” gives the commission the authority to implement the pay plan. Walker’s ruling is being appealed and the pay plan, first authorized in 2021, remains on hold.

Legislation introduced this year includes a proposal to repeal the “stand appropriated” language and limit MoDOT spending to amounts approved by the legislature. Other proposals would give lawmakers power to veto the STIP and eliminate the commission and allow the governor to appoint the department director.

During the commission meeting, member W. Dustin Boatwright of Cape Girardeau warned that passage of any of the bills would mean major disruptions to department operations.

“These proposed changes could result in upheaval of the project selection process by shifting funds from one area of the state to another without public input and allowing partisan politics to enter a nonpartisan commission structure,” Boatwright said.

At the news conference after the meeting, Commission Chairman Terry Ecker of Elmo said he is confident that none of the proposals will win passage.

“I’m just gonna say it’s not gonna happen,” Ecker said.

The present structure isolates the commission from politics and any changes would have to be approved by voters, he noted.

“And I just don’t foresee that happening,” Ecker said. “So I don’t know that we spend much time worrying about it.”

Another issue that has some lawmakers questioning how road funds are used involves the money for the I-70 project. The $1.4 billion set aside from general revenue has earned $16.4 million in interest so far this fiscal year, money Gov. Mike Parson wants to earmark for a study of which portions of Interstate 44 should be improved.

During a budget hearing, lawmakers questioned Treasurer Vivek Malek on how interest earned on the fund is being credited in state accounts. They contend the interest earnings should be returned to the general revenue fund instead of remaining in the earmarked account.

The project awarded Wednesday is a design-build contract that specifies any risk of cost overruns will be borne by the contractors. 

“When we talk about risk,” McKenna said, “this is a risk that’s being factored in by the industry.”

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