Chuck Walton never intended to be the poster boy for toll roads in Arizona. The Casa Grande mayor had never given the concept much thought. But when he heard a toll road advocate speak at a conference, he stood up and blurted out that his community desperately needed roads — even if that meant a toll road.
“All I ever did say is Casa Grande would be a guinea pig to test one,” Walton said. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook ever since.”
Not one of the calls was negative. Other elected officials picked up on that and, in the months since, have said it’s time for Arizona to consider building toll roads or setting aside some lanes for drivers willing to pay a fee. The idea has gained traction at a time when transportation planners, city leaders and developers have come to agree that highway construction has lagged behind explosive growth.
“I think it’s a great debate to have,” said Victor Mendez, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation. “I think it’s something that may actually enhance our ability to deliver more infrastructure.”
His counterparts in other states also are studying toll roads — or approving them.
And Mendez doesn’t see Arizona’s current funding structure keeping pace with the need for new roads.
For Walton, a toll road may be the only chance to see another highway parallel to Interstate 10 in his lifetime. He keeps hearing that the project, which would connect I-10 in northern Pinal County to Interstate 8, also would run through the Gila River Indian Community and require the tribe’s approval.
Such a road has been on the drawing board for years, Walton said, but never gets funding. He figures it’s 20 years away, based on current funding methods. More than 40,000 houses are planned in his community now, and those homeowners can’t wait two decades.
“It’s more of an act of desperation because there aren’t any alternatives,” Walton said.
Desperation is typically what brings toll roads.
Nationwide, they’re constructed in traffic-choked areas where elected officials and voters don’t want to raise taxes but want new roads.
The idea came up several times here in the 1990s, when the Valley’s freeway building program was in peril.
Drivers were angry that nearly a decade after they approved a half-cent sales tax to build a massive freeway system, hardly any new roads were in place.
Toll road companies pitched a plan to finish the system with toll roads. Or they proposed freeways with some toll lanes, also called HOT lanes or value lanes. The ideas died because of political resistance and further financial studies that showed they wouldn’t make money.
By 1997, HDR Engineering proposed building 46 miles of toll lanes in the East Valley to speed up freeway construction by a decade. East Valley lawmakers united against what was called MetroRoad. Drivers already paid a sales tax, they argued, so toll roads would amount to double taxation.
“It was not going over very well with my constituents,” Sen. Carolyn Allen, RScottsdale, said of the plan that would include tolls on Loop 101.
Allen raised objections to tolls remaining in place forever, preferring they go away after they pay for the road’s construction.
She’d be open to looking at the idea again — if numbers prove funding isn’t keeping pace with growth.
That’s happening in Arizona and across the nation, said Mary Peters, who was director of ADOT when it reviewed the failed MetroRoad proposal.
President Bush later named her administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
Peters said the federal highway program will run out of money by decade’s end without substantial changes, and said states are turning to toll roads already to fill gaps.
“You just can’t depend on the federal government to bring the money in that was around when the interstate system was first built,” Peters said.
She is advocating toll roads now as an employee of HDR, where she is national director for transportation policy and consulting. Peters promotes toll roads outside the state, but said the company doesn’t think the political climate in Arizona is ready to embrace the concept. Peters said that could change, however, because of money woes.
“I think people in Arizona now are realizing that there just isn’t going to be money from traditional sources to build projects quickly enough,” Peters said.
Peters was the speaker Walton heard at the conference when he was inspired to say he’s willing to discuss the idea.
Arizona law already permits toll roads. However, the state requires that drivers have free alternatives within a reasonable distance. Peters said the state’s laws are good, but not great, in allowing tolls.
Tolls would be more likely in some places than others, transportation experts say. It’s easier politically to charge for new roads or build toll-only lanes when widening a highway.
That makes Pinal County a candidate, especially because of a meager tax base and explosive growth. Elected leaders there say existing taxes and impact fees can’t pay for all the highways that are needed.
“We’re thinking that toll roads might be one of the tools in the tool box,” said Sandie Smith, D-District 2 and chairwoman of the Pinal County Supervisors.
Many transportation officials said it would be a deal killer, because of political resistance, to suggest putting tolls on existing roads.
Some carpool lanes also could allow drivers to pay based on congestion and time of day, however.
But high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes aren’t as open to more traffic as drivers might think, said Eric Anderson, transportation director for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
About half of the existing HOV lanes are near capacity today. If drivers used those lanes for a fee, the lanes could quickly become congested and offer little advantage to carpoolers, those who would pay for a faster trip or passengers on an expanding rapid bus service that uses the lane.
Logistics limit where toll lanes could work, Anderson said. Drivers in free but congested lanes might be tempted to jump into the toll lane, even if briefly, and that kind of merging could lead to crashes. The toll lanes would need some kind of separation with limited access points.
Also, ADOT would need room to build pullouts where police could wait during patrols to go after scofflaws. Without strong enforcement, cheaters would flood the lane and undermine its effectiveness and profit-generating ability.
MAG studied toll roads and toll lanes several years ago but the effort went largely unnoticed.
Anderson doesn’t see toll roads getting serious discussion for at least a few more years.
“Most people don’t want toll roads,” Anderson said. “But if it comes down to, ‘Do you want this freeway built in your lifetime or never?’ the answer might be different.”
THE CASE FOR:
• They pass the cost of road construction directly to the user.
• They finance road projects without raising taxes.
• Modern collection systems, such as transponders in cars, reduce or eliminate the need for road-clogging toll booths.
• They provide alternate ways for drivers to get around and can reduce congestion on other roads.
• Studies show toll lanes have similar use among drivers with low-, medium- and high-income levels.
THE CASE AGAINST:
• They are sometimes called “Lexus lanes” because they would be more affordable for affluent drivers.
• They could amount to double taxation if users in some areas already pay taxes dedicated to transportation.
• Private firms that own or operate toll roads would only take over the most profitable highways, creating more of a burden on taxpayers by not financing other roads.
• A network of nontoll roads is a community asset that’s inviting to tourists and businesses that use roads heavily.