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Officials support state gasoline tax increase, hope to rid I-70 ‘bottleneck’

A 10-cent increase, phased-in over a period of time, to the state’s 17-cent-per-gallon motor fuel tax is vital to addressing major road projects in the state – including a traffic “bottleneck” on Interstate 70 in Wentzville that threatens traffic flow not only for the county but the entire St. Louis region. 

Those are the sentiments of St. Charles County elected officials who have begun putting in their two cents worth on the gasoline tax measure set for the November general election ballot. The ballot measure came out of the Missouri General Assembly’s last session, which was completed last month.

If approved, the state’s fuel tax on gas and diesel would rise 2.5 cents each year starting in 2019 until topping out at 10 cents in 2022. Taxes on natural gas and propane also would rise.

State fuel tax revenue is a prime source of funding for transportation improvements by the Missouri Department of Transportation [MoDOT]. State voters rejected fuel tax increases in 2002 and 2014. The last time the gasoline tax was raised was in 1992.

The St. Charles County Council was briefed at its May 29 meeting on what came out of the recently completed Missouri General Assembly legislative session, particularly the gasoline tax increase. Voters also will be asked to vote on a process for addressing transportation “bottlenecks” that hinder traffic flow.

County officials have been supportive of gasoline tax increases because lack of funding has slowed MoDOT projects including corridor studies, bridge and highway construction. It’s also limited the state’s ability to obtain federal matching funding needed for major road and bridge improvements.

The ballot measure drew immediate support from council members and County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

Also one of those prominent bottlenecks is in the western part of the county. An old railroad bridge across Interstate 70 in Wentzville limits the widening of the interstate beyond its existing two lanes in either direction. Traffic often bottlenecks on the interstate near the bridge, but a cash-strapped MoDOT has not been able to afford to move the railroad tracks and replace the bridge.

Ehlmann said last year that the traffic bottleneck on I-70 may be slowing the movement of people to the west.

“I don’t see a lot of people moving to Warren County if it takes them a half-hour to get under the railroad bridge,” Ehlmann said.

Councilman Joe Cronin [District 1] said improving the nearby I-70/Hwy. 61 interchanges are major priorities.

“That’s like the No.1 transportation issue, I think, in this part of the county and most especially my district,” Cronin said. Cronin noted that MoDOT officials have said improving the interchange area was a priority project in press reports. “I was really encouraged by that. I hope the voters agree to give up 2 and a half cents a year.”

Ehlmann said he wanted to make this point at a meeting the week of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the regional planning agency that includes representatives from counties throughout the St. Louis region and has input on state and federal transportation spending.

“With all the logistics that are going on here including Amazon and FedEx and our county, what’s going on in Wentzville, Hazelwood and across the river, the Interstate 70 corridor, which includes I-270, I-370 and I-70 west  – that’s like the main street for trucking in this area, “ Ehlmann said. “The problem is that it’s got bottlenecks on both ends.

“It’s got the Chain of Rocks bridge [across the Mississippi River] with only two lanes in each direction, that’s already on the calendar to be fixed,” Ehlmann continued. “And at the other end of the region, we’ve got the railroad tracks at Wentzville where you’ve got five lanes on I-70 coming together trying to get into two lanes to get under that railroad track.

“It’s not just important to our constituents. I think that project is important to the entire region and entire state.”

Cronin agreed. “I’m looking forward to seeing you [Ehlmann] at that ribbon cutting,” he said.

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