Missouri’s Road to Tomorrow is a project rooted in desperation, but is equally abundant with opportunity.
The project, announced by the state’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) on June 3, will attempt to transform a 200-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from the type of traditional roadway found across the nation into a high-tech platform for fundraising, innovation and economic development. Any idea is on the table, the state says, and officials are asking the public for help on how to dig themselves out of a financial tar pit.
Missouri is in the same tough place that many states are when it comes to its roadways. Billions are needed to maintain and expand an aging and crowded infrastructure. But Congress can’t agree on how to fund the roads, and states like Missouri don’t have the means to do it themselves. Transportation technologies leap forward each week, while the nation’s 4.09 million miles of road remain very nearly the same as they have been for decades.
In Missouri, 75 percent of surface infrastructure is funded by a fuel tax that hasn’t risen a penny since Sling Blade was in theaters. MDOT tried to pass a general sales tax, but it wasn’t popular and failed. During this year’s legislative session, there was debate about raising the fuel tax, but the session ended without any resolution. Meanwhile, the roads remain, with no new funding methods in sight. That’s where the state needs smart, innovative people and companies to come in and share their ideas, said Thomas Blair, MDOT assistant district engineer.
“Because of our funding desperation and our inability to match federal funds, we need these innovations,” Blair explained. “We need private partners to come to us and say, ‘I have something I would like to do on this right-of-way.’ And what we’d really like is something that would increase revenue stream.”
The state is responsible for 34,000 miles of roads and 10,000 miles of bridges. How to pay for the maintenance and upgrades of that infrastructure is a problem the state believes can be solved by innovations in technology and funding.
“We’re looking for innovators to come out there, so whether they’re engineers or not, everybody has an opinion on transportation,” Blair said. “Everybody has some idea out there. We’ve all seen something at some point — an innovation or invention — that we all kick ourselves because, ‘Man! I wish I would have thought of that!’ That’s what we’re looking for. What is that next thing?”
Cutting-edge technologies featured on the project website include things like connected vehicles, reactive highway paint, self-driving vehicles and solar roadways, but those are just concepts to give people a flavor of what they’re looking for, Blair said.
An enterprising startup could approach the state with a plan to install five miles of solar-powered roadway and share some of the revenue with the state.
A device manufacturer could install Wi-Fi hotspots along the freeway and charge users a small fee to stay connected to high-speed Internet as they zip along.
Another company could install data collection devices that drivers opt into on their smartphones for a tax rebate, and the data could be sold to advertisers or other companies.
The state is open to any and all ideas, and they don’t necessarily have to involve technology or transportation, either, Blair said.
“You have 200 miles at the center of the state of Missouri that’s about a half-mile wide,” he said. “Now how can you make money off that?”
About 100,000 vehicles pass through Missouri’s piece of Interstate 70 each day. The state just hopes that someone can approach them with an idea that can turn their financial situation around.
“Our funding is declining to the point that we have to spend the funds that we have on our primary roads, which are interstates, and we won’t have any funds to hire contractors to resurface or rebuild our other roads beginning in 2018,” Blair said. “We’re headed toward this path where if funding doesn’t change, we’re not going to be able to maintain all of our roads.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.