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Toll roads partly private?

UDOT may gain permission to shoulder costs with investors

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In general, Utahns aren't too thrilled with the thought of paying to use a road. But a bill scheduled for debate today in a Senate committee could make it so at least fewer tax dollars are spent on the roads.

SB80 gives the Utah Department of Transportation permission to join with private groups in a public-private partnership to build toll roads. In an ideal scenario, the legislation would allow a company to pay the state — sometimes billions — for the right to build, operate and collect tolls on a road.

Sponsoring Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, says his measure could help pay for construction of much-needed roads. Utah is currently facing a $16.5 billion deficit for road projects planned over the next 25 years, according to regional transportation planners.

"Roads stopped falling from heaven a long time ago and we have to find a way to pay for them," said Killpack. "This is nothing more than an enabling tool for UDOT."

But opposition to Killpack's measure is building among a few mayors in western Salt Lake County. If passed, SB80 could put the Mountain View Corridor, a freeway proposed for western Salt Lake and Utah counties, on the fast-track to becoming a toll road. UDOT is now studying how and where to build the road. Tolling, and whether it would work for Mountain View, is included in that study.

West Jordan Mayor David Newton says Killpack's bill "opens the door" for the state to toll Mountain View and puts an unfair burden on west-side residents to pay for it. Killpack's own brother, a West Jordan resident, has expressed frustration with the measure, said Newton.

"If we don't open the door, it won't happen," he said. "We're not trying to cause problems, but it's a concern."

South Jordan Mayor Kent Money questioned the timing of Killpack's bill.

"It's new and there's a lot of questions that need to be asked as well as answered," he said.

But Killpack maintains his bill is simply another tool for UDOT. And other states have already begun to utilize the private sector to help with rising costs for roads.

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that some $25 billion in private investments are "proposed or committed" toward the operation of new or existing toll roads in the United States. Most recently, Indiana expressed interest in selling a 157-mile state toll road to an outside group. The sale could net up to $3 billion.

Last year, Chicago sold its Skyway toll road for $1.83 billion — becoming the first state in the nation to sell an existing toll road, according to The Associated Press. In October, Texas entered into agreement with a Spanish company to build a 316-mile toll road. And Colorado is now studying whether to have private groups finance roads in the Denver.

As in Utah, toll roads in Colorado are a controversial topic, said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "What's been hard is that tolling isn't a commonplace financing method in the Western states," she said. "I think a lot of that is fear and lack of education and understanding of the potential for toll roads."

Both UDOT and the governor's office support public-private partnerships. If Killpack's bill is passed, Utah could become one of the first in the nation to have a road operated under a public-private partnership.

"It's a new concept in general for the nation," said UDOT spokesman Nile Easton. "Other states are looking at it as well, but we're further along because we have an ongoing transportation study of the Mountain View Corridor that allows us to look at tolling and public-private partnerships."

On March 16, UDOT plans to hold a public meeting to discuss tolling in Utah. For more information about the Mountain View Corridor and the tolling study being done on the road, log on to www.udot.utah.gov. To read a copy of Killpack's bill, log on to www.le.state.ut.us.

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com