JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson called on state lawmakers to set aside nearly $860 million to widen and improve traffic flow on Interstate 70 in his annual State of the State address Wednesday.
The massive investment in I-70 is part of a nearly $52 billion budget proposal unveiled by the Republican. The rough plan for I-70 includes widening the highway in suburban Kansas City, the Columbia area and suburban St. Louis near Wentzville, where the road is notorious for congestion.
The hope is also to get rid of a tangle of traffic lights at the intersection of I-70 and U.S. 63 in Columbia, Missouri Transportation Department Director Patrick McKenna told reporters before Parson’s address. He said the traffic lights could be replaced with ramps to make switching highways smoother.
"Not only are we concerned for the motorists' safety, these inefficiencies are costly to our state’s economy, and we must invest to improve I-70,” Parson said. “For those who say we can’t afford it, I say we cannot afford not to."
Proposals have existed for years to widen I-70 from two to three lanes in each direction across the entire state, but Missouri has never had the money to do it.
Parson’s plan would tap into the state’s historic budget surplus to accomplish a portion of that. It would widen over 50 total miles of roadway in suburban St. Louis, suburban Kansas City and Columbia while also improving a bottleneck interchange at I-70 and U.S. 63. That would still leave around 140 miles of rural I-70 with two lanes in each direction.
By focusing on the most congested areas, the proposal would create “a much more reliable I-70 for the next couple of decades,” McKenna said.
But it could take a few years for construction to begin, because the state first may need to obtain additional land, relocate utilities and design the road, McKenna said.
In his speech, Parson branded child care as a workforce development issue and pushed for increased access through tax credits, subsidies and money for pre-kindergarten programs.
“We know child care remains a struggle for many parents and businesses,” Parson said. “Child care providers often have to limit their hours due to staffing shortages or increase their prices. This poses a real challenge to parents as they weigh the decision to work or stay home.”
Roughly $56 million in Parson’s budget would go toward providing free pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch — about 17,000 children. An additional $78 million would subsidize private child care.
State Budget Director Dan Haug said Parson’s budget includes a total of $800 million for various child care programs.
Democrats stood to applaud Parson throughout his speech. House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said Democrats back his efforts to improve highways, make child care more accessible and pay state workers more — another policy outlined in the governor's budget.
“I’m thrilled to hear the governor discuss issues that Democrats have been fighting for for decades," Quade told reporters after Parson's speech.
Under Parson's proposal, all state employees would get an 8.7% pay raise, and an additional $2 per hour shift differential would be paid to employees working nights or evenings in facilities such as prisons, mental health facilities and veterans nursing homes.
The pay raises come as Missouri is struggling to keep workers from bolting for better-paying and potentially less stressful jobs.
Nearly one-quarter of Missouri’s budgeted positions in the Department of Corrections are vacant, and one-fifth of the positions in the Department of Mental Health are empty, according to data provided to The Associated Press. Those vacancy rates are double what existed in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic began.
Parson lauded school safety officers and law enforcement who responded to a deadly October shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis, where a young gunman killed two people and injured seven others. The school reopened to in-person learning Tuesday.
Parson pitched a $50 million increase in funding for school safety grants in response to the shooting.
Quade said she would be grateful to see the extra money but it’s “absolutely not” enough to address the violence if lawmakers refuse to talk about access to firearms.
In response to a deadly Amtrak train crash in northern Missouri last year, Parson budgeted $35 million for safety upgrades to railroad crossings across the state. Four people died and dozens more were injured when the Amtrak train collided with a pickup truck near Mendon last June.
“We learned the hard way that we must do more to improve transportation safety,” Parson said.
Though Parson did not propose a mandatory pay raise for teachers, his budget would nearly double the money available for a program that helps local school districts provide extra pay to teachers who take on additional responsibilities. Parson proposed to add nearly $32 million to the program’s current $37 million budget.
The governor also proposed hundreds of millions of additional dollars to fully fund the state’s public school system and continue paying the full bill for school busing.
Higher education institutions would get a 7% funding increase under Parson’s budget plan and an additional $272 million for building projects.