Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Arizona denied permission to toll I-15 that runs through corner of the state

Whilst North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri have passed the first hurdle of a Federal programme that may allow states to toll existing untolled Interstate Highways in order to fund upgrades and renewals, Arizona has been denied the chance.

Arizona wanted to turn the 46.5 km (29 mile) portion of the Interstate that cuts the northwest corner of the state from St. George Utah to Mesquite Nevada into a tollway.

It proposed a $250 million upgrade of the highway to be funded from a toll of between $1-$3 per car and $6-$10 per truck. The upgrade was primarily about fixing and replacing bridges on the route and upgrading the pavement. Officials of Utah and Nevada do not deny the need to address funding for the highway, the question being how.

The proposal was strongly objected to by the governor of Utah, who saw that his constituents would be paying the most because of the location of the proposed route.  The Spectrum reported about how pleased Utah officials are with the decision.  In essence the problem is that it appears to be mostly a transit route. The image below from the report on the KCSG TV website clearly demonstrates this, as the highway cuts the corner of the state.

I-15 Arizona - shows clearly how little of the state it goes through
According to Tucson Citizen, "The Virgin River Gorge highway was completed in 1973. It has since become a vital trade route and the key freight link from Los Angeles ports to Salt Lake City. Without the highway, truckers would have to take 200-mile detour to the north on two-laned state highways. " As such very few Arizonans are regular users of the highway. This may be behind why the State Transportation Board refused a recent request for $30 million funding of maintenance for the route ( but approved $15 million).

This situation reminds me of the position of some countries in Europe which face the costs of maintaining highways used by significant numbers of transiting trucks. The solution there has been, in some cases, to impose vignettes upon all vehicles using the major highways, so that a “pass” has to be bought to access the network, imposed equally on locals and foreigners (the locals paying less of other taxes as a result). The passes can be for periods of between 1 day and 1 year. Such a solution may not be suitable for a single road like this, but the logic behind tolling this section of highway is clear.

The calculation I’d like to see is an assessment of the average revenue collected from the road from fuel taxes, albeit that most of that will have been bought out of state. Then there can be a measure of the “gap” in funding which tolls are needed to fill. At least then the argument that people “are already paying” can be adequately considered.

The proposal isn't completely dead, as if one of the states approved so far drops out of the Federal programme then Arizona will have another chance.  Frankly I think the programme itself should be superseded by a detailed set of criteria needed to address Federal approvals to toll across the Interstate network.  This should be the point of debate.  Further delay in advancing states being innovative in tolling is delaying the infrastructure improvements the Federal Government is seeking to advance.

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