LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo — The Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge—commonly known as the "toll bridge"—has been connecting the Lake's east and west sides for nearly two decades. But as another year has drawn to a close, and local businesses and residents review their annual expenses, some can't help but wonder: when's this thing going to be paid for? The bridge is still being paid off, but Joe Roeger, VP & Treasurer for the bridge's board of directors, says the end is in sight.
Currently, the Community Bridge TDD still owes approximately $17,400,000 before the bridge is paid for, according to Roeger. In 2018, the bridge’s toll revenues were $3,822,213. Roeger said 2019's revenues were on track to increase by about 4 percent. But about $450,000 from each year’s revenues goes towards salaries and wages for the 18 employees who service the bridge and operate the toll booths.
The board expects by 2026 the bridge will be paid off and turned over to the state for free use by drivers and maintenance by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
Passenger vehicles pay $3 in-season and $2 out-of-season to cross the bridge: which means those who commute daily across the bridge have to budget about $1,200-1,300 per year for tolls. Lake area contractors appreciate the convenience of being able to hop between Lake Ozark and Sunrise Beach in half the time, but they often pay an even higher price than residents: for two- and three-axle utility trucks, the cost to cross is $5 in-season and $3.50 out-of-season. A few companies were willing to reveal how much they paid in tolls, in 2018:
Catalyst Electric - $2,100
Scott’s Concrete - $5,050
Midwest Roofing - approx. $7,800
The Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge was built and dedicated in 1998, thanks to a $43 million dollar lien that paid for the planning, development, and construction of the bridge. In 2012, the Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge Corporation was restructured and the Community Bridge ownership and operation was assumed by the Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge Transportation Development District (TDD), which is governed by a Board of Directors.
One of the main questions asked by bridge users is if the board has ever considered automating the toll collection. Roeger explained, “We analyzed automatic toll collection but it was not cost-effective. Since so many of the bridge users are visitors, they would not have accounts set up with the bridge. We would still have to employ individuals to take their money. The automated toll collection equipment is expensive and we would have to build a 4th lane so electronic toll collection (ETC) could be utilized in both directions.”
How Did The Bridge Get Here?
A common misconception is that the Community Bridge was approved by a vote of the people. However, the Camden County Clerk's Office records show the bridge was not “voted” on by the public, but instead it was approved by the Camden County Commission.
In March 1992, the Camden County Commission met for a public hearing and ultimately approved the Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge Project. The project was developed by the Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge Corporation and funded with $43 million in bonds.
The Commission at the time consisted of Merle Cross, Dave Krehbiel, and Scotty Green. The Clerk's Office document explains the “legislature of the State of Missouri enacted the Missouri Transportation Corporation Act [which] authorized the creation of transportation corporation by private parties in cooperation with the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission.”
This was the meeting that approved the construction of a bridge that is now used daily by many at the Lake. The Revisor of Statutes in the State of Missouri under Roads and Waterways in Chapter 238 lays the groundwork for the process: “the commission shall order a local public hearing and shall cause to be published notice that the commission is considering authorizing a project and the incorporation of a transportation corporation.” The commission is also required to “serve written notice on each county, city, town and village in which all or part of a project is to be located that the commission is considering authorizing a project and the incorporation of the transportation corporation.”
The point: the bridge did not need to be voted on by the public, but after a public hearing, commissioners were legally empowered to approve the construction of the bridge.
Free On The Horizon
For some, the toll bridge is an annoyance: a non-free road in a nation full of freeways (which are, of course, not free at all but paid for by federal and state tax dollars). But many others at Lake of the Ozarks find the bridge a useful tool for traveling between the Lake's east side and west side. Time is money, and in many situations, it's still more economical for businesses and employees to fork over a few bucks for the short route, than driving the much longer route through Camdenton. One woman who lives on one side of the toll bridge and works on the other side told LakeExpo she loves the toll bridge for its convenience, and simply plans the toll into her budget.
Nothing beats "free," though, and Roeger reminds drivers there's light at the end of the tunnel. Until then, businesses, residents, and visitors will still need to plan to fork over a few bucks to cross. On the bright side: that million-dollar, seven-mile panoramic view of the Lake when you cross the bridge can hardly be beat.