Will the need for more freeways finally take its toll on Arizona motorists? Two Senate bills submitted this week would legalize the construction of toll roads or pay-as-you-go freeway lanes.
Backers of SB1576 and SB1635 point to the success of toll roads in other states such as Texas and a dearth of alternatives for the rapid expansion of Arizona’s congested freeway system.
“We are 10 or 15 years behind the curve with building highways and freeways in the state,” said SB1576 sponsor Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. “I’m trying to get the private sector involved with building roads in the state that aren’t being built publicly.”
Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday, but Napolitano indicated earlier this week during a press briefing that she does not favor toll roads in Arizona.
Tibshraeny’s bill would create a public highway authority made up of business leaders and public officials that would control the planning and construction of toll roads to be built by private contractors and managed by the highway authority, contractors, or both.
The other bill, introduced by Sen. Pamela Gordon, RAnthem, would authorize the Arizona Department of Transportation to enter into partnerships with private contractors to build and operate pay-peruse “freeway acceleration and sensible transportation” lanes, also known as FAST lanes.
Gordon did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment on SB1635, which would require the state to issue a request for proposals by July 2008 to convert existing highoccupancy vehicle lanes into FAST lanes or add the lanes to freeways. Neither bill has been placed yet on the legislative transportation committee’s calendar for review.
The bill would allow carpoolers to continue using the existing HOV lanes for free, but they would have to share the road with toll-paying single-occupant vehicles. Buses, alternative fuel vehicles and gasoline- and diesel-electric hybrids also could use FAST lanes for free.
Tibshraeny said his bill and Gordon’s don’t necessarily conflict and could both become law, but only SB1576 would create a public-private highway authority, which would not be under ADOT’s control.
Still, he said ADOT would be involved in discussions about specifics not included in the bill, such as the makeup of the authority’s governing board and the method of selection.
“I’m not planning to slice them out of the process,” Tibshraeny said.
ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said the department is still reviewing SB1576 and does not generally comment on pending legislation.
Tibshraeny pointed to the success of toll-road legislation in Austin, Texas, which opened the first 41 miles of its planned 65-mile Central Texas Turnpike toll-road system in November and December.
Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said the $3.5 billion project, paid for with highway bonds, is a transportation coup for the fast-growing metropolitan area.
“We are a year ahead of schedule and $4 million under budget,” she said. But some Texans are far less enthusiastic about the new turnpike, which Garcia said costs motorists up to $1.50 per trip depending on the distance traveled.
One group calling itself the Texas Toll Party calls state officials “looters” on its Web site, www.texastollparty.com, and says the project’s primary beneficiaries are the construction companies that landed lucrative contracts to build it.
Group founder Sal Costello said the conversion of existing highways to toll roads — similar to what Gordon’s bill proposes in Arizona — amounts to a “double tax,” because residents already paid for the roads with tax dollars and now must pay again to use them.
But Garcia said the tolls are not a tax because there are still plenty of freeways motorists can take instead to avoid paying.
“If they choose not to use the toll road, then you don’t have to pay the toll,” she said.