Toll talk fizzles in Arizona Senate

| 4/12/2007

At a time when legislators in many states are touting the benefits of tolling, lawmakers in the Arizona Senate appear to have sidelined legislation that would open the state to more tolling options.

A pair of bills that remain in committee as the regular session draws to a close next week 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.

Supporters of the plan have struggled while trying to convince lawmakers it is an inexpensive way to pay for needed road work.

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 of day. Under SB1635, motorists driving alone would be exempt from paying to use FAST lanes during off-peak hours.

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

Two other tolling bills also appear to be in trouble. 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 the other bills’ status remains in doubt, one bill was voted down by a Senate committee. The bill – SB1576 – sought to allow cities and counties to collaborate with private groups to create “public highway authorities.” It would have permitted these groups to build new roads and add lanes to existing roads in return for collecting tolls.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor