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Toll Roads, Tax Hikes Eyed as Road Funding Options

Wed October 17, 2007 - West Edition

PHOENIX (AP) Fuel tax increases and tolls for some new freeway routes are on the table as state legislators open a major review of transportation funding options.

But it’s already apparent that neither policy option would be an easy route for lawmakers to take.

Critics say other states’ toll programs have been fraught with problems while proponents say charging drivers could provide revenue to repay private investors who provide up front money to build costly projects.

Those could include proposed I-10 bypasses around Phoenix and Tucson, a new link between the two urban areas and new express lanes on Phoenix-area highways, one advocate said.

Meanwhile, increases in fuel taxes or the state’s sales tax runs counter to the political priorities and sensibilities of many legislators. The gasoline tax is now 18 cents a gallon, while the state sales tax is 5.6 cents on the dollar.

Nevertheless, all options are on the table because transportation needs far outstrip available funding, said Rep. Andy Biggs, chairman of both the House Transportation Committee and a special House-Senate panel charged with examining options the full Legislature could consider during its 2008 regular session.

“We’re starting with a macro view of the problem,” Biggs, R-Gilbert, told colleagues as the House-Senate panel met Oct. 2 for the first time.

However, “I know there’s going to be legislation on toll roads,” he told reporters after the meeting. “You need to air it out.”

While numerous other states have launched new toll-road initiatives, Arizona has not taken advantage of an authorization put into state law in the 1990s.

Leonard Gilroy, a toll-road proponent who is government reform director of the Libertarian-oriented Reason Foundation, said the private financing method can accelerate construction at a time when traditional transportation funding is increasingly inadequate.

“What we’re talking about is catching up to the rest of the developed world. This is not something from outer space,” said Gilroy, citing use of toll roads in Europe and elsewhere in the United States.

However, Arizona Trucking Association President Karen Rasmussen said the 335-company group would prefer a limited increase of fuel taxes over tolls. She cited steadily increasing tolls and lack of accountability on other states’ programs.

“It’s a heck of a lot better to own a toll road than to use it,” she said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, a former Arizona transportation director, has urged states short on cash to pay for highway projects to consider tolls and so-called value-pricing, charging more for highway use during busy times.

Biggs said political realities dictate that any tax increase would be submitted to voters, while any new toll system probably would be applied only to construction of routes not now either under construction or even included on approved plans.

State Transportation Director Victor Mendez told the lawmakers that an improved transportation system is critical to the state’s economy and virtually every facet of Arizonans’ everyday life, whether for recreation, schools or health care.

Traffic congestion represents a “time tax” that holds the state back, Mendez said, echoing an oft-stated concern voiced by his boss, Gov. Janet Napolitano. “It does affect your ability to be productive.”

Napolitano has said she is not keen on the idea of toll roads, and Mendez on Oct. 2 was noncommittal when asked by a lawmaker whether the state’s transportation picture would be helped by use of public-private partnerships.

The public needs to understand what is being proposed, he said. “If it is a solution that works in Arizona, maybe it should part of our toolbox.”

Mendez said his department will present the House-Senate with a broad study of the state’s transportation needs during its next meeting, which hasn’t yet been scheduled.

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