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Toll roads are in your future — embrace it

Traffic is heavy Sunday morning along Wasatch Drive near Little Cottonwood Canyon as skiers and boarders head to the slopes. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — You don’t like the idea of toll roads in Utah. I mean, you really don’t like it, according to a newly released opinion poll commissioned by Utahpolicy.com.

The poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics, found a resounding 68 percent of Utahns either somewhat or strongly opposed to the idea.

Well, you’re going to get them anyway.

Maybe not now, and maybe not in the next couple of years, but eventually. That’s my prediction. Write it down.

The reason is simple. Tolling — and not just straight, one-price-fits-all tolling but variable tolls that change depending on traffic conditions — is the best answer to a future filled with both taxing and pollution challenges.

I have believed this, and written about this, for many years, and I’ve watched the state inch ever closer to the idea, even as big cities around the world begin to embrace it.

And I keep getting little hints that state leaders are thinking in this direction.

Take a discussion I had Monday during a meeting between leaders of the Central Wasatch Commission and the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. The commission’s chairman, Chris McCandless, talked about the need to educate people that it’s better to take a bus up the canyons to ski resorts than to add to the congestion that regularly brings traffic to a standstill along those roads in the winter.

I interrupted to remind him that public education efforts rarely work as well as economic incentives. He and former Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, who is the commission’s executive director, both nodded and acknowledged that tolling likely will be a part of the long-term strategy for canyon roads, especially during congested days.

The reason is simple. Nothing changes behavior quite like your pocketbook. If driving up a canyon costs more than taking a bus (including the inconvenience cost of trying to find a parking space), you’re likely to park at the base of the canyon and hop aboard.

The same applies to taking a trip across town. If you could save money by driving during a less crowded time, or if you could find a cheaper alternative during rush hour, either by carpooling or taking mass transit, you’re likely to change your behavior.

New York City is trying it. As Andrew J. Hawkins wrote for the Verge, “The logic behind congestion pricing is pretty simple: Charge motorists a fee to enter the busiest parts of a city, and use that money to bolster public transportation, which is more efficient at moving people through cities and better for the environment.”

As a result, “The road becomes less congested, the air becomes clearer, and cities become more livable.”

That’s no small matter in Utah, for two reasons. The first is the pollution that regularly chokes the skies here during the winter and, to a lesser extent, on hot summer days. Automobiles are large contributors to that problem.

The second is the state’s ongoing need to build and maintain highways as the population grows. Gas taxes traditionally have borne much of that weight, but with cars becoming more fuel efficient, and with more people buying hybrids and electric cars, the tax is becoming less effective and no longer qualifies as a true user fee.

In addition, Utah already uses money from general sales taxes to subsidize road and highway funds, and this is a large contributor to problems that have state lawmakers working hard on tax reform.

If done right, tolling could reduce, or even eliminate, gas taxes over time.

Former state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser gets it. I watched as he led the effort a few years ago to pass a law that makes tolling possible in Utah. Last week he told the Deseret News he understands why Utahns don’t like the idea of tolls, “But when I understand what the issues are, I say, ‘I don’t like it, but it’s the right thing to do.’”

By the way, you don’t like raising the gas tax, either. The same Y2 Analytics poll found 49 percent opposing it, with only 36 percent in favor. Of course, life would be easier without any tax or toll, until the roads crumble.

Guiding Utah into the future will take leadership and persuasion. But unless a better idea comes along soon, tolling seems to be an inevitable part of your future.