Arizona has big backer for I-15 toll road plan

If Arizona officials need only a single supporter to push through their proposal to place toll booths on the portion of Interstate 15 that links Nevada and Utah, they just might have their man.

It doesn't get more promising than Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez.

Our neighbors to the southeast say they are simply exploring the idea of charging vehicles to pass through Arizona on roughly 30 miles of the interstate, but the Federal Highway Administration will ultimately rule on the toll road proposal.

Last year, Obama administration officials announced they will allow three non-toll interstates to charge motorists under its Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, an experiment designed to determine whether tolling is a viable method to generate funds to maintain or widen aging freeways.

Mendez said he and his boss, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, both are for exploring new techniques to raise money to keep the interstate system healthy.

"Secretary LaHood has been clear that he is open to all options. There are a lot of demands and needs," Mendez said Tuesday. "Our system is aging."

Missouri and Virginia already have secured two of those spots in the pilot program, and the federal government is entertaining applications for the third.

Interstate 15 not only is an integral road for commercial truckers, it also is the only direct route between Southern Utah and Las Vegas. Residents in St. George have been known to sneak across the border to Mesquite for a little gambling, and Mesquite citizens travel to St. George for medical services.

Leaders in those communities obviously are not thrilled with the idea, especially when the proposed toll rate is $1 to $3 for passenger vehicles and $6 to $10 for commercial trucks.

Taxpayers outside the immediate area also are irked at the idea that a federally funded interstate soon could charge taxpayers to use the very freeway they already paid to have built. Traditionally, toll roads are new freeways constructed and maintained by private enterprises.

Mendez has heard that argument but doesn't buy into it.

"It's like when you buy a home. You may have paid it off, but you still have to maintain it," Mendez said. "If the plumbing goes, you are going to pay to have it fixed."

In its application to the federal government, Arizona transportation officials said that the portion of the interstate, which includes a scenic 12-mile stretch through the Virgin River Gorge, is in dire need of repairs. They estimated the cost to make the improvements to the roadway and eight bridges will run around $250 million.

Their beef is that few Arizonans drive that freeway. The only Arizona communities even near the small portion of Interstate 15 are the small towns of Littlefield and Beaver.

"Arizona derives virtually no economic benefit from the interstate, as it runs through a remote, lightly populated corner with few commercial businesses," the application filed in August says. "Yet it is a highway of critical regional and national importance."

In a nutshell: Interstate 15 is the trade route between Canada and Mexico so the United States can't let it go to pot, but it is also more pricey than the average freeway to maintain because it runs through the narrow gorge and Arizona officials don't want to be stuck with the bill because it is of little use to their residents.

If anyone understands that, it's Mendez, who served as director of the Arizona Department of Transportation before he became chief of the Federal Highway Administration. If anyone doesn't, it is trucking associations and residents in Nevada and Utah. Judging by reactions days after we unveiled Arizona's proposal, Mendez should expect to here some noise from those states' leaders.

"Every state pays into the Highway Trust Fund, and every state receive money from the Highway Trust Fund to maintain the segments of the Interstate Highway System inside their respective borders," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement released days after we revealed Arizona's plans.

"Arizona cannot pick and choose which parts of our national interstate network it wants to maintain. If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars."

Representatives for Gov. Brian Sandoval said he has not taken a position on the proposal, but his team in Washington, D.C., is monitoring Arizona's application.

Transportation agencies have historically paid for new freeways and improvements with fuel taxes. As more fuel-efficient vehicles have hit the road, the interstate coffers have quickly dwindled. The federal government is exploring more innovative ideas such as charging motorists per mile they travel and, of course, toll roads.

"We are always looking for resources to add capacity and maintain the existing interstate system," Mendez said.

It sounds as though Arizona has the top guy on its side.

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