A stretch of Interstate 44 and adjacent intersections in Springfield are set to get a $28 million makeover, pending Gov. Mike Parson’s stamp of approval on the Missouri budget.
Inside the largest budget in state history at $51 billion, which includes nearly $3 billion for improvements to Interstate 70, a group of legislators in Greene County worked to secure funding for I-44.
“This was something that we needed to get done eventually and we’re sitting on a surplus of money that probably won’t be there in years to come,” Rep. Betsy Fogle, D-Springfield, told the Springfield Daily Citizen. “And I think it was a smart way for us to make sure that we’re leaving lasting impacts with those dollars in a fiscally responsible way.”
Much of the nearly five-mile stretch of I-44 that would receive a facelift under the budget headed to Parson’s desk is within House District 135, which Fogle represents.
Representatives Stephanie Hein, D-Springfield, and Bill Owen, R-Springfield, Fogle’s House Budget Committee colleagues and neighbors to the north and south of District 135, were equally supportive of the funding. The I-44 money later survived the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
New bridges, flyover ramp, a tunnel and more lanes
While there has already been a plan in the works to widen I-44 between Kansas Expressway and Highway 65 to six lanes, $28 million from the state government is meant to reduce congestion and make I-44 safer in Springfield.
In the quarter-mile stretch of the Kansas Expressway bridge over I-44, in all directions, there were 260 crashes, 90 of which resulted in injury and two in deaths during the five year period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
According to Fogle and Owen, the state funding would give the Missouri Department of Transportation the means to:
- Build a flyover from southbound Kansas Expressway (also known as Highway 13) onto eastbound I-44
- Add a tunnel for Norton Road under Kansas Expressway
- Expand the ramp for westbound I-44 traffic onto Kansas Expressway
- Remove the existing diverging diamond on Kansas Expressway over I-44, which was the first such interchange in the United States
- Expand and restore the bridges over National Avenue, Grant Avenue and Broadway Avenue
- Repave the existing lanes on I-44 between Kansas Expressway and Highway 65
Work on expanding the 4.7 mile stretch of I-44 to six lanes, which has already received funding from other sources, has been held up because of the needed improvements to the bridges, according to Owen.
“This was really the linchpin that’s allowing us to move forward not only on the intersection, but with the six lanes between 13 and 65,” Owen said. “The comment was made to me by a MoDOT official, that if we can get the $28 million to do this all at one time, that it might even speed up the project when we do it.”
Springfield legislators insist ‘Life does exist below I-70’
Owen stressed how I-44, especially at the interchange at Kansas Expressway, is a vital artery not just for commuter traffic, but for tourism from Branson to Kansas City.
“None of that stretch of I-44 is in my district, but it doesn’t matter,” Owen said. “It’s a regional thing, it’s regionally important. It’s important to Branson, it’s important to Bolivar. I was stunned how many people, when I started working on that intersection, were contacting me from Polk County.”
In addition to commuters and tourists, I-44 and U.S. Highway 60 both have the highest freight demand of any corridor in the state, more than I-70, according to the MoDOT Freight Rail Plan from 2022.
“The difference is staggering,” Owen said.
Hein said during a House committee meeting, she reminded her fellow legislators that “life does exist below I-70,” and that the improvements to I-44 were necessary to help transform Springfield into a logistics hub.
“For me, if we’re going to put money into I-70, it was really important for me that we not lose sight of I-44,” Hein said. “Early in the budget process, this project came to light and it addresses one of the more dangerous intersections I think that we have in our city.
“And if you’re traveling in from Kansas City, or if you’re traveling in from St. Louis or into Joplin, you’re going to be impacted by what happens on I-44. So for me, it was an incredibly important project to help get across the finish line.”
However, I-44 isn’t receiving nearly as much funding as I-70, in part because I-44 is still awaiting a statewide environmental impact study. That’s where an additional $20 million is coming in, and is also included in the budget bill waiting for Parson’s approval.
On top of the $28 million in improvements to the I-44 area in Springfield, which Owen said was possible because a lot of environmental work has already been done in Springfield, the budget would allot an additional $20 million to conduct a study of the entirety of I-44 in Missouri, from the Oklahoma state line to the Mississippi River.
In a press release, Hough said the budget items will help improve major arteries around the state, including I-44, prepare for “future road work and expansions.”
Fogle commended the bipartisanship between Owen and Hough, both Republicans, and Hein and herself, both Democrats, in order to include the interstate project on the budget.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to show how Springfield collaborates across the aisle to bring things home for our constituents,” Fogle said.
Parson is slated to make a decision on the budget bill this week, as the legislative session is scheduled to come to a close May 12. Until the $28 million is approved, the timeline on I-44 improvements is uncertain.