Are Tolls the Answer?

Sept. 28, 2010

In both Arizona and Colorado the legislatures are still in session, and both have been considering the use of tolls as a means of increasing highway funding. The matter is considerably further advanced in Colorado, where the state has already authorized the use of tolls and the Colorado Department of Transportation has established a tolling authority and completed a study of what stretches of highway could most effectively (i.e., profitably) be expanded through the collection of tolls.

In both Arizona and Colorado the legislatures are still in session, and both have been considering the use of tolls as a means of increasing highway funding. The matter is considerably further advanced in Colorado, where the state has already authorized the use of tolls and the Colorado Department of Transportation has established a tolling authority and completed a study of what stretches of highway could most effectively (i.e., profitably) be expanded through the collection of tolls. And the heavily used HOV lanes leading into/out of downtown Denver on I-25 have been expanded into HOT — high occupancy/toll — lanes in which single motorists can pay a toll to use the barrier-separated lanes otherwise reserved for high occupancy vehicles.

It's rather frustrating that, in this year's legislature at least, the question of raising additional highway funding in Colorado has come down to a single tolling measure for a single stretch of highway. When he was inaugurated just over a year ago, new Gov. Bill Ritter pledged to address the highway funding problem and, as governors are wont to do, appointed a blue ribbon task force to study the matter and make recommendations. The panel completed its report, looking at several levels of increased funding and how they might be reached, and ultimately recommended that an additional $500 million a year be spent on the state's highway system, with those funds to come from a variety of sources, including substantial increases in the state fuel tax, increases in motor vehicle registration fees, and always popular increases in taxes on rental cars and hotel rooms. But Colorado's TABOR law (Taxpayers' Bill Of Rights) requires all tax increases to be put to a public vote — and everyone recognizes that this is not the time to be asking residents to raise their taxes. It looked for awhile as though a substantial increase in vehicle registration fees might be enacted by the legislators — and this would require no supporting voter approval. But a whopping, lump sum increase in the cost of registering the family vehicle is not going to be the least bit popular, and with members of the legislature nearly all ultimately having to face the electorate, this method, too, died a quiet death this year, possibly to be resurrected in better economic times.

What, then, is left? Well, it turns out the only funding measures to advance as far as committee hearings both looked at placing tolls on specific portions of Interstate 70, but only at specific times. The measures were intended to address the congestion that occurs on I-70 west of Denver, primarily on weekends and holidays during the winter ski season and the summer recreation/tourist season. This corridor, from Denver west as far as Glenwood Springs, has been the source of countless studies ever since the interstate highway was completed in the 1980s — and those studies have never reached any viable conclusions except that any attempts to address the situation will be expensive.

Tolling I-70

Two legislative proposals to charge tolls for driving Interstate 70 in the mountains west of Denver got so far as to be considered by the Senate Transportation Committee during March. One died there, while the other took a couple of steps forward.

Senate Bill 209 by Sen. Chris Romer (D-Denver) to levy tolls on one or more lanes of I-70 for those traveling the highway through Clear Creek and Summit counties (essentially from west of Denver to the ski areas as far west as Copper Mountain), but only during the skier morning and evening rush hours, was postponed indefinitely on a 5-2 vote, effectively killing the measure. Money generated by the tolls would have gone to fund bus service over the route.

The other measure, Senate Bill 213, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany (R-Colorado Springs), was approved on a similar 5-2 vote after two hours of rancorous debate and sent to the Senate Appropriations committee for another hearing before reaching the full Senate. The Appropriations Committee approved it by a 7-3 vote.

SB-213 would have charged I-70 drivers a toll of up to $5 each way at booths near the Eisenhower Tunnel to raise needed funding for unspecified improvements to the highway between the tunnel and Floyd Hill — the four-lane stretch of the highway that passes through Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Silver Plume and, of course, the twin-bore tunnel under the Continental Divide that is the cause of most of the congestion and delays during periods of heavy traffic.

The intent of McElhany's bill was to generate funding — $900 million to $1.2 billion, with the help of bonding — for some solution to the I-70 congestion but does not designate what that solution should be. That determination would be left up to the I-70 coalition that has studied the situation and its possible solutions for years. After issuing a final report that called widening the highway the only practical and financially viable alternative, the coalition was called back to the table by Gov. Bill Ritter and told to study the situation again, looking once more at various forms of mass transit, including rail and magnetic levitation, that were earlier eliminated as being too costly.

And while SB-213 got by its first hearings, it seems that nobody liked the bill, and even those who voted in favor of it in the Transportation Committee hearing say they might not vote for it in the full Senate. Gov. Ritter blasted the proposal, claiming McElhany failed to consult with the people who would be most impacted by it. The bill would have exempted those whose vehicles are registered in the counties along the route — Clear Creek, Gilpin and Summit — but that didn't appease the governor. In response, McElhany said he only introduced the bill because the governor has failed to do anything to address the state's transportation funding woes.

The Colorado Contractors Association addressed a letter to the legislature's Republican Caucus, stating, "While we wholeheartedly welcome and applaud Senator McElhany and Representative May's outstanding efforts to generate new I-70-specific maintenance dollars [May would be the House sponsor of the bill], absent a broader perspective, we find ourselves unable to fully embrace the approach.

"After considerable internal debate and discussion, CCA concluded it can ill afford to risk leaving legislators, the media, the traveling public nor voters with the impression that annually generating $40 million via a $5 per vehicle toll on I-70 between Floyd Hill and the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel is a solution. While arguably a vital part of the solution, it is not itself a solution.

"Tolling and congestion management is an integral part of the larger solution and CCA strongly supports a broader conversation about the use of tolling to address Colorado's maintenance and congestion relief needs."

Faced with all this opposition, Sen. McElhany on April 24 chose to postpone further hearing of SB-213 until after the Memorial Day weekend — well after the legislature will have adjourned. He quipped, "I want everybody in the Memorial Day traffic jam to think, 'For five bucks I could have avoided this.'"

Funding Feuds

In Arizona, meanwhile, two bills that would allow the Arizona Department of Transportation and other public agencies to work with private companies to finance, build and maintain pay-as-you-go (i.e., toll) roads won tentative approval from the full Senate in March. Then, after an April Fools' Day radio broadcast informed residents of the state that their freeways had been converted into toll roads and the outcry was instantaneous, the bills have advanced no further in the legislature.

But Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and a coalition of business groups that includes the state highway/heavy chapter of Associated General Contractors are finalizing plans for a 30-year, $42-billion transportation plan to be presented to voters on this November's election — if enough signatures are obtained to get it on the ballot. To satisfy everyone, the measure includes a mix of highway and rail transit projects. Funding possibilities include impact fees assessed on new homes and a 1-cent sales tax increase. Key projects that would be funded include the obvious — expansion of interstates 8, 10, 17, and 40 — as well as the controversial — commuter rail from northern Arizona south through Phoenix and Tucson, a rail or expanded bus rapid transit system in Tucson — and expansion of the fledgling Phoenix area light rail system. The sponsoring coalition, known as TIME (Transportation & Infrastructure Moving Arizona's Economy) must obtain 153,365 valid signatures to place the measure on this year's ballot.

About the time the funding initiative measure was being announced, the Arizona Department of Transportation announced that its feasibility study of an I-10 bypass around Phoenix and Tucson indicated the 250-mile project, though quite costly, was indeed technically feasible and appears to be necessary. So there's another major unfunded project added to the mix.

Last, and perhaps most surprising, is the April 15 suggestion by Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain that the federal motor fuels tax ("gas tax") be suspended between Memorial Day and Labor Day to provide an "immediate economic stimulus." In reality, the effect would be quite the opposite, and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has compiled figures showing what such a short-sighted move would cost the states in federal highway funding and lost jobs. The 2008 funding loss and extrapolated job loss (over a 3- to 4-year period) for the Mountain states is: Arizona, $141.6 million, 4,923 jobs; Colorado, $96.4 million, 3,351 jobs; Nevada, $51.6 million, 1,794 jobs; New Mexico, $66.4 million, 2,309 jobs; Utah, $51.4 million, 1,787 jobs; and Wyoming, $46.2 million and 1,608 jobs. That's hardly an economic stimulus, and really quite shocking when proposed by the candidate most in the construction industry are likely to vote for!