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Sierra Club Debunks Nixon’s Letter to DOT Secretary LaHood

By Ginger Harris

Chair, Missouri Sierra Club

“The Sierra Club of Missouri is disappointed that Governor Jay Nixon sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood supporting MoDOT’s application for $200 million in TIGER funds to construct four additional truck-only lanes on the least-traveled 30 miles of Interstate 70. We subsequently learned that the Governor extended this same courtesy to other TIGER applicantsin the state, upon request. However, since we believe some statementsin the Governor’s letter regarding MoDOT’sapplicationcan be challenged, and becausethe substance of the Governor’s letterwas sent out to news media, we feel it’s incumbent upon us to provide another point of view to the media.

In supporting MoDOT’s application, the Governor apparently supports MoDOT’s plan to add four truck-only lanes to I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis at a projected cost of at least $7 billion, including the cost of going through or around Kansas City and St. Louis, since this project would be part of a four-state “corridor of the future” (Kansas City to Wheeling, W.Va.).

Part of the Governor’s rationale for spending this much of our state and federal taxes on this highway project is apparently based on a Department of Economic Development model which estimated that “I-70 impacts almost one-fourth of all Missouri jobs.” This statement doesn’t explain how I-70 impacts those jobs, including whether the impacts are positive or negative.

We know that when a highway-industry-sponsored constitutional amendment moved money from general revenue to a highway-only fund in 2004 (equal to a transfer of about $150 million by 2008), the state ended up cutting funding for public transit, which contributed to the loss of a third of St. Louis’transit service. So the maintenance needs of I-70 had a negative impact on transit jobs. Furthermore, I-70 may impact my job, but the Chinese factory worker who makes tires that are imported into the U.S. also impacts my job.

However, what impacts my life as a Missouri citizen far more than either I-70 or the imported tires is whether my community is built in a way that allows my children to safely ride their bicycles to school and allows my neighbor to safely walk to the local shopping district. Spending our tax dollars to promote big trucks makes it more likely that big trucks will also be wending their way through our communities on state highways and local arterial roads. It also means there will be fewer tax dollars to build safe sidewalks for pedestrians and safe streets for cyclists, let alone help fund a public transit option for our citizens.

Building four new lanes on I-70 for the exclusive use of big trucks may be a prelude to Missouri allowing even longer and heavier trucks on its highways. The trucking industry is now lobbying Congress for such permission. If they get it, it won’t be long before they begin getting such permission from states, including Missouri, which notoriously caters to the trucking industry, witness this proposal to give the industry four exclusive lanes at 100 percent taxpayers’ expense (because, says MoDOT, “the trucking industry does not want to pay any toll or higher weight fee or diesel tax to help defray the cost of these exclusive lanes”).

If and when longer and heavier trucks start using the new exclusive truck lanes, they will also end up on our other state highways and arterials, again making these streets more dangerous for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users. If longer and heavier trucks are subsequentlybanned from highways and arterials other than I-70, their freight may as well have been loaded onto much safer, more economical new freight rail lines.

The Governor’s letter of support mentions that future heavy traffic on I-70 will impact I-70’s condition: “Such heavy use accelerates the deterioration of pavement.” It is well-known – and MoDOT agrees – that big trucks already do not pay their share of interstate maintenance costs. At best, big trucks produce taxes and fees to cover only half (and more likely one-twentieth) the maintenance needed to repair the damage they cause to bridges and highways. That means that passenger vehicles and taxpayers in general are heavily subsidizing big trucks already.

In fact, the Governor’s letter acknowledges that exclusive truck lanes “…will reduce costs to shippers.” But because of the high -- and eventually rising -- cost of fuel, exclusive truck lanes will not reduce the cost to consumers as much as new – and eventually electrified -- freight rail would. Moreover, to the extent that consumers are also tax-payers, their $7 billion taxpayer subsidy to big truckswill end up transferring money from consumers to trucking and highway industries.And for trucks that go straight through without picking up or dropping off freight in Missouri, Missouri taxpayers will be subsidizing non-Missouri consumers.

The Governor’s letter cites MoDOT’s projection that traffic on I-70 is expected to double by 2030, and that truck traffic is growing at double the rate of car traffic. These projections are based on out-of-date past trends. They do not account for recent years’ increases in the price of petroleum or consumers’ growing interest in “buying local.”

The current and expected levels of traffic are also influenced by past, current and future expected subsidies such as the fact that big trucks don’t pay their fare share of road costs, and that Missouri’s gas and diesel tax rates are the same as or lower than in the eight states contiguous to Missouri. Only Oklahoma has lower fuel tax rates. Missouri’s rates have not risen in many years, while six of the eight states have raised their fuel tax rates within the last 5 years. The proposed exclusive lanes for big trucks at taxpayers’ expense would represent yet another huge subsidy to big trucks.

The Governor calls for an innovative, forward-looking solution to the expected doubling of traffic, especially of truck traffic, in order to better compete in the global economy. Why not consider increasing the capacity of freight rail, which is a far more energy-efficient, economical and safe way to move freight? You can be sure the countries we are competing with are investing much more heavily in rail than Missouri is.

The Governor’s letter says that Missouri will need to pursue many different solutions for I-70, and that MoDOT’s application to build 30 miles of exclusive truck lanes “would advance one such approach.” The trouble is that it advances the highway approach over other possible solutions. By building those 30 miles, the state precludes the likelihood that another solution – e.g. freight rail improvements – would be built in this corridor or would be chosen by the 4-state compact that is currently studying which mode to recommend for the corridor from Kansas City to Wheeling, W.Va.

The Governor’s letter says that truck-only lanes “may result in enhancements to safety.” This is speculative, since MoDOT’s proposed design hasn’t been tried out anywhere else. In fact, the Owner Operator Independent [truck] Drivers Association has already said MoDOT’s design is likely to be more dangerous.

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