Toll talk fills the air in Arizona Senate chamber

| 3/8/2007

Lawmakers in the Arizona Senate are debating legislation that would open the state to more tolling options.

The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved a pair of bills that would clear the way for the state to allow for high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes. Motorists who drive solo would be permitted to pay a fee to access the lanes.

The first bill - SB1585 - would authorize private groups to submit proposals to state officials to convert high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes, on Interstate 17 and state Route 51 in Phoenix into toll lanes. The Arizona Department of Transportation also would be allowed to seek similar proposals for other state highways.

"We have road needs, and this is an inexpensive way to pay for it," Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, told The Arizona Republic.

A more sweeping effort - SB1635 - offered by Sen. Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, would convert the state's HOV lanes to so-called FAST lanes, or freeway acceleration and sensible transportation lanes. Private groups also could propose constructing new lanes.

Tolls would vary with the amount of traffic congestion and time the day. Under SB1635, motorists driving alone would be exempt from paying to use FAST lanes during off-peak hours.

Supporters say opening the lanes up to drivers willing to pay a fee would help fill the excess capacity on existing HOV lanes. Opponents say it is unfair to convert existing taxpayer-financed lanes into private roads.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved two other tolling bills. The first bill - SB1586 - would require ADOT to accept unsolicited proposals for transportation projects from private companies. One other bill - SB1587 - would allow ADOT, local governments and private groups to partner for transportation projects.

While several bills related to tolling advance in the Senate, one bill has died that sought to allow cities and counties to collaborate with private groups to create "public highway authorities." Sponsored by Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, the bill - SB1576 - would have permitted these groups to build new roads and add lanes to existing roads in return for collecting tolls, The Republic reported.

A tie vote in Senate Transportation Committee effectively killed the bill.