Arizona’s I-15 money grab

Drivers between Las Vegas and Utah may barely notice that — just before they enter the winding and scenic Virgin River Gorge — Interstate 15 passes through a 29-mile slice of Arizona, an isolated piece of real estate cut off from the rest of the Grand Canyon State by, well, the Grand Canyon.

Back during the highway’s design phase in the 1960s, the Federal Highway Administration insisted the road travel through the canyon, making it the most expensive section of rural interstate in the country at the time.

In the end, Utah actually paid for the freeway. Because the interstate was so important to Utah, it fronted Arizona the money to build that section of I-15.

But Arizona still argues it “derives virtually no economic benefit from the interstate, as it runs through a remote, lightly populated corner with few commercial businesses,” as state officials there wrote in a recent filing with the Federal Transportation Administration. “Yet, it is a highway of critical regional and national importance.”

Are you thinking like a state lawmaker yet? What do you do with an asset that’s important to a bunch of outsiders, but which is used rarely, if at all, by actual Arizona residents?

Charge for it, of course.

So the Arizona Department of Transportation is seeking permission from Uncle Sam to convert the nearly 30-mile segment of Interstate 15 that stretches through Arizona and the Virgin River Gorge – from north of Mesquite to south of St. George — into a toll road. Motorists would be charged $3 to drive the stretch, if Phoenix gets its way. Trucks hauling goods on the primary commercial route linking San Diego to Canada would have to cough up $6.

Arizona argues, “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.”

Come on. Are we really to believe these revenues would never be shifted for other needs elsewhere in Arizona?

There’s nothing wrong with toll roads. If tolls allow new construction that otherwise wouldn’t take place, that’s great. But this is a money grab, pure and simple, built on the backs of Nevada and Utah residents and commercial haulers.

The interstate highway system has become part of the genius of a continent-spanning nation where most commerce flows freely, effectively without checkpoints and internal duties. Starting a potlatch in which each state might soon rush to get theirs from “outsiders” is a precedent that must be considered carefully.

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