Last modified on Oct 17, 2013

The Arizona Department of Transportation wants to turn a remote stretch of interstate into a toll road, but most toll payers would be from other states. The segment of Interstate 15 in the northwestern corner of the state could become Arizona's first toll road.

Only 29 miles of the interstate slice across the northwestern tip of Arizona between Utah and Nevada, part of a major route that extends from San Diego through Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. The road winds through the scenic Virgin River Gorge in Arizona and is a gateway to Utah's Zion National Park. If the federal government agrees, car drivers could pay $1 to $3 and truckers $6 to $10 to travel the Arizona stretch.

ADOT announced its intentions without fanfare in an August request to the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, saying that the interstate needs $251 million in repairs and that Arizona has no money to pay for the work. A "fairly immediate" need is to rebuild bridge decks, and "tolling appears to be the most equitable method of accomplishing it," the letter said. States are charged with maintaining all highways, including interstates, within their boundaries.

In a response letter, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said that the U.S. Department of Transportation, of which the FHWA is a part, will review the request but that "it will likely take some time." The I-15 toll would be part of a federal pilot project to add tolls to sections of three interstates in the country. Virginia and Missouri have gotten the green light, but nothing more has happened. Arizona is competing with two other states for the final slot.

Even if the I-15 toll is approved, it might be years before motorists pay it. ADOT plans detailed studies next year to find out if the toll makes sense financially, environmentally or for moving traffic. An Arizona trucking-industry group, which learned of the I-15 request a month after it was filed, came out in opposition. "We oppose tolling on existing facilities," said Karen Rasmussen, president of the Arizona Trucking Association. "From my experience in other states, once a toll goes in, it never goes away, and it never drops."

The I-15 proposal is the latest attempt by state and regional transportation planners to find new private sources of money to improve highways. ADOT Director John Halikoswki said tolls are just one option to meet an increasingly urgent safety need. "The state has a duty to maintain those bridges (on I-15) and make them safe," Halikowski said. "That's my priority. How it gets funded is not my priority."

In other states, toll roads have been managed by state transportation departments, independent public agencies or private contractors.

Key corridor

Interstate 15 is a major route for freight and tourists. It runs from San Diego, past Los Angeles, through Las Vegas and on to Salt Lake City and the Canadian border.

About 1,200 people live along I-15 in Arizona, and the local economy is almost entirely agricultural, ADOT's letter said. Many people commute between the Nevada towns of Mesquite and southern Utah's St. George area, known as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts who visit Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

ADOT said the area around I-15 provides little economic benefit to the state because it is cut off and much of the land is vacant. But because it also is the only Mexico-to-Canada trade route between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, it creates a captive market for long-distance travelers. The only alternate route is a roughly 200-mile detour on a mountainous state highway.

That, and the fact that a quarter of the traffic is made up of trucks, led ADOT to consider it a good toll-road candidate.

The road through the gorge was completed in 1973 and was the most expensive stretch of rural interstate in the country, ADOT said. Since 1998, ADOT has made a series of nine repairs on the bridges there. Earlier this year, ADOT and three other sister agencies found cracks in the steel girders and broken welds and joints in some of the seven bridges over the Virgin River.

In May, ADOT asked for $30 million a year to repair and maintain I-15. The State Transportation Board, which has the final say, voted against the request. Last month, ADOT tendered a request for a $25 million federal grant.

Rasmussen was told in meetings with ADOT that if no repairs are done, the state might have to close the highway or put weight restrictions on it.

Toll proposals

Interstate 15 could become Arizona's first toll road but maybe not the last.

The ADOT office responsible for developing partnerships with the private sector is also considering tolls on the existing Arizona 189. The congested 3-mile highway carries freight from the commercial port of entry west of Nogales onto Interstate 19. The border crossing was improved with federal Recovery Act funds, but ADOT says it needs as much as $65 million to get the road capable of handling the flood of big rigs coming through.

"The option of building a new alignment in a reasonable time period is only viable if private funding can be leveraged," an ADOT report said, noting that the agency has no money for improvements. ADOT suggested looking at toll revenue.

ADOT also is exploring the idea of turning to private investment and tolls to build what is known as the "North-South Corridor." The proposed 45-mile highway would connect Interstate 10 at Picacho Peak to U.S. 60 at Apache Junction and serve as an artery for expected growth in the far East Valley and as a reliever route for I-10.

ADOT's report again noted that it lacks a source of funding and that the route is a "good potential candidate for tolling."

The same argument drove planners at ADOT and the Maricopa Association of Governments to consider tolls in a long-term plan to build a new interstate bypassing the Valley to the west and south.

A MAG study also is under way to find out if converting some Valley carpool lanes, particularly I-10, to toll lanes would make sense. The idea is to adjust the toll to varying levels of congestion in a way that keeps as many cars moving freely as possible. Results are expected late next spring.

Funding shortages prompted the credit-rating agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's to downgrade ADOT's standing in recent weeks. Moody's called attention to the state Legislature taking highway funds to balance the state budget. Lawmakers have taken $1.4 billion in highway funds in 11 years.

The downgrade had two effects, said John McGee, ADOT's finance expert, who now oversees the private-partnership office. It wiped out ADOT's ability to raise $300 million in bonds for projects that were in the five-year construction program. That would have been enough to cover the full cost of I-15 repairs. The lower rating also means it will cost more to buy construction bonds in the future.

ADOT spends about $1 billion annually to build, maintain and repair highways in Arizona. About half of that goes toward Maricopa County's voter-mandated transportation program.

That and a 2009 state law allowing the state to enter partnerships with private companies are why toll roads are being looked at now. The office overseeing proposals for funding partnerships has received none for roadwork.

ADOT expects a vigorous debate about tolls and their effect on the wider economy.

Rasmussen said they will hurt the state's competitiveness and could cost truckers jobs because freight companies typically cannot pass the cost of tolls onto their customers.

"Trucking is a very low-margin business," she said. "Anything you have to do and can't pass on to customers makes you less profitable. And, yes, that can cost jobs."

Instead, she, other trucking-association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials have advocated raising fuel taxes. That hasn't happened in Congress or the Arizona Legislature in 20 years.

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by Sean Holstege - Oct. 25, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

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