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Lawmaker earmarks $727 million to I-44 reconstruction

Mar. 19—Still to come State Rep. Cody Smith, the House Budget chairman, said his proposed funding plan still has to be finalized by his committee and the entire $49.9 billion state budget passed out of the House. Then the Senate will get to make any changes they can pass before it goes to a conference committee for reconciliation. After it passes the Legislature, Gov. Mike Parson will get to weigh in on the entire budget with his line-item veto pen. Learn more about plans for Interstate 44 at https://www.modot.org/forward44#:~:text=Program%20Overview,County%2FSt%20Louis%20County%20line.

A stretch of interstate where Interstate 44 and Interstate 49 merge and run together for about 7 miles east of Joplin would see expansion to six lanes if a plan proposed by House Budget Chairman Cody Smith makes it through the legislative process.

Smith was at CFI's Joplin headquarters Tuesday to announce he is adding $727.5 million in surplus state revenues and possible savings from the project to rebuild Interstate 70 to give a major boost to I-44 improvements around Joplin, Springfield and Rolla.

In the Joplin area, the plan would earmark $291 million to widen the interstate to six lanes between the Fidelity interchange south of Carthage and the I-44/I-49/Missouri 249 interchange, and start rebuilding the Fidelity interchange from a cloverleaf to a series of four flyovers to carry traffic between the highways.

Marcus Edwards, vice president of recruiting at CFI, said the changes will mean safer travel along I-44 for truck drivers and others.

"I-44, as you drive down that, the lanes are the standard width, but they don't look the same," Edwards said. "They look skinnier because they're so congested, so adding those extra lanes going east and west is going to be very helpful."

Smith, R-Carthage, said lawmakers driving on the interstate every week for their commute to Jefferson City can see the need for I-44 to be upgraded as quickly as possible.

"The I-49 and I-44 interchange (at Fidelity) is one of the busiest, probably in the country," Smith said. "That's a very expensive overhaul, and it has been in MoDOT's plan for some time now. Injecting some additional cash in there will help move it forward more quickly. Additionally, six lanes between that intersection and the 249 exit here in Joplin will help alleviate congestion a great deal. If you just get out on the interstate today and you travel a little bit across and through Joplin, you'll see that traffic gets slower and backs up and it's more congested, just like it is in Springfield and Rolla. Some additional investments here and specifically the injection of cash to get started earlier will help alleviate those things more quickly."

Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna was at the news conference along with many employees of CFI and a few state representatives from Southwest Missouri.

McKenna said MoDOT is already investing $500 million in I-44, but that money is going for preservation and maintenance, not expansion.

He cited freight volume "particularly here in Joplin" and the convergence of I-44 and I-49 and economic growth in Springfield as reason for expanding those areas.

McKenna said the Fidelity interchange of I-49/I-44 was built with a cloverleaf design that worked well when traffic volumes were lower but not with the volume rising dramatically.

He also said MoDOT has divided the upgrades to the Fidelity interchange into five phases.

"At the Fidelity interchange, we see about 38,000 vehicles a day," McKenna said. "We had some of that work underway, but the nice part about this is it layers in and augments that. ... We think this is a well-targeted plan to hit the primary issues that are experienced by the local community while they're trying to get around while freight is also trying to move through the area."