Arizona plans to gouge I-15 drivers with toll

Drive Interstate 15 toward Southern Utah and the orangish rock formations and strata framing the Virgin River Gorge force your eyes to shift from the road to the scenery.

Most motorists might not realize they are breezing through Arizona at that point, but they surely will if they have to pull out their wallets. Arizona transportation officials are asking the federal government to allow them to charge for a peek at that 12-mile stretch of beautiful landscape.

And how exactly would the Arizona Department of Transportation do that? By converting the nearly 30-mile segment of Interstate 15 that stretches through Arizona — and the Virgin River Gorge — into a toll road.

If successful, tax-paying motorists who already paid to build Interstate 15 as well as maintain it for the past four decades, will be charged $3 to drive on the portion that slices through the northwest corner of Arizona. Trucks hauling goods on the primary commerce route linking San Diego to Canada will have to cough up $6.

Arizona is being politically savvy in its attempt to double-dip taxpayers and generate funds without infuriating its own residents.

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

What that means essentially is transportation officials realize this is a critical corridor to many in the Southwest, but not necessarily Arizonans. They could give a hoot about the feelings of non-Arizona residents who frequently travel between St. George, Utah, and Mesquite. And because it is part of the trade route dubbed CANAMEX, truckers would have no choice but to pass through their cash-collecting web.

You can almost picture the transportation types rubbing their evil little hands together. Mua-ha-ha-ha.

Toll roads are not easily sold to motorists. This typically would be a tougher sale because the toll road won’t be a newly built freeway, but an existing interstate already paid for by taxpayers.

But what if it’s in a remote area of the state, really only home to the tiny communities of Littlefield and Beaver Dam? What if it is a stretch of interstate largely unused by Arizona residents because of its location and lack of major exits or interchanges? What sort of political backlash could possibly percolate in the Grand Canyon State?

Well, truckers aren’t very happy about it.

Karen Rasmussen, president of the Arizona Trucking Association, made it known to her membership that the organization is not pleased with the proposal or the secretive manner in which the Department of Transportation acted. The trucking outfit was never formally told of the state’s plans.

"Clearly ADOT did not contact any of its industry stakeholders and are laying the ‘blame’ on this on our State Transportation Board," Rasmussen wrote in a letter disseminated to members. "This thing has legs. I’ve gotten a call from our congressional offices wanting to know our position, and we have several key state legislators who’ve come out in support of this."

The Federal Transportation Administration will agree to toll three interstates in order to generate money to maintain aging freeways or build new roadways. Interstate 95 in Virginia and Interstate 70 in Missouri received preliminary approval.

This stretch of Interstate 15 has been a point of contention between Arizona and the federal government ever since it was in its design phase in the 1960s. Arizona officials unsuccessfully fought to build it two miles north where fewer topographical challenges would make construction less expensive.

The Federal Highway Administration insisted that the road travel through the canyon, making it the most expensive section of rural interstate in the country at that time, according to Arizona’s toll road application.

If you think Nevadans might be angry that they might have to pay to drive the most direct route to Utah, imagine how the folks in Utah might feel about it — they actually paid for the freeway. As construction was set to begin in 1966, the federal government pulled nearly 20 percent of its highway funding because of the Vietnam War, according to the website aaroads.com. Because the interstate was so important to Utah, it fronted Arizona the money to build I-15.

The federal government listed the stretch on its list of Nationally and Exceptionally Significant Features of the Federal Highway System.

According to Arizona’s letter to the federal government, the maintenance is pricey for the same reasons the construction was so expensive. It needs to rehabilitate the eight aging bridges within the gorge.

"The intent is that 100 percent of the money collected from the tolling operation on I-15 will be applied to rehabilitation, maintaining and operating the I-15 corridor in Arizona," the application says.

Nevada is experiencing the same struggles in coming up with funding to fix old infrastructure. The Nevada Department of Transportation has proposed raising fuel taxes and is studying charging motorists for miles traveled. Maybe the simplest solution is the route Arizona went: Throw up toll booths on the state border and charge motorists who take in the Strip from I-15.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

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