Each day, nearly 24,000 vehicles race through a 30 mile stretch of Interstate-15 that pierces the northwestern corner Arizona. This segment of the highway – known as the “Arizona Strip” – looks much like the rest of I-15 as it traverses through the Mojave Desert, serving as a vital freight link between Southern California and points West. Many drivers don’t even know they have entered Arizona.
But the state ignited a firestorm of controversy when it submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation last week to begin tolling that 30-mile segment for everyone but Arizona residents.
In documents submitted to the federal government’s tolling and pricing office, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) states that it is seeking to participate in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. That program, authorized in 1998, allows up to three segments of the Interstate Highway System to be tolled by states to finance roadway improvements or expansion. Two other states have been granted permission to toll Interstate highways: Interstate 70 in Missouri and Interstate 95 in Virginia.
ADOT contends that a new toll would raise up to $393 million over a 30 year period to fund vital roadway improvements, including bridge superstructure improvement, pavement rehabilitation, and safety enhancements. In its application, ADOT admits that tolling existing interstate capacity is “not popular,” but that a new source of revenue is necessary to carry out necessary improvements and tolling is the “most equitable method of accomplishing it on this very unique and isolated section of roadway.”
The proposal was immediately criticized by officials in neighboring Utah and Nevada. “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” Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert said in a prepared statement. The Las Vegas Review-Journal called the plan a “money grab…built on the backs of Nevada and Utah residents and commercial haulers.”
With shrinking revenues and constricted budgets, however, many states do not have other options to finance necessary highway improvements. Several states, most recently Virginia, have pursued public-private partnerships to begin tolling segments of existing state highways or newly constructed Interstate highways.
It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing. According to the Federal Highway Administration figures, 32 states have developed a total of 280 toll projects between 1991 and 2009, roughly divided between newly constructed toll highways and toll-backed improvements to existing facilities. Toll roads now account for nearly one-half of newly constructed access-controlled expressways.
As Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell explained after his state received approval to begin tolling a segment of Interstate-95, “limited funds and growing capital and maintenance needs have led to deficient pavement and structures, congestion, higher crash density, and safety concerns. This approval is a major step toward funding critical capacity and infrastructure investment needed in this corridor.”