A group of automobile hobbyists took the first steps Monday to quashing the chance of Arizonans having to pay to drive on roads they already paid to build.
An initiative measure would constitutionally prohibit the conversion of any existing publicly funded or maintained roads into any form of toll roads. Most significantly, it would quash efforts to take lanes now reserved for high-occupancy vehicles and allow motorists driving alone to use them — for a fee.
The issue is not just academic.
Maricopa Association of Governments already spends money to study whether to convert existing HOV lanes along Interstate 10 and other highways into toll lanes.
That would affect not just local residents — anyone trying to drive into or through the Phoenix metro area, particularly at rush hour, would be faced with the choice: Stew in traffic or pony up.
And rates would be set on a "dynamic'' basis: The higher the congestion on the road, the more per mile to use the HOV lane.
Backers need 259,213 valid signatures by July 3 to put the measure on the 2014 general election ballot.
Al Tracy, chairman of the No Toll Roads in AZ Committee, said there are about 400 car clubs in the state affiliated with the Arizona Automobile Hobbyist Council. Tracy, president of the council, said he believes members can be rallied to help gather the signatures.
Nothing in the measure would bar the state from charging tolls on entirely new roads. That is one of the options being discussed for construction of new highways, including the proposed Interstate 11 which could stretch from south of Tucson to Las Vegas.
Tracy said he has no objections to the kind of public-private partnerships that might be needed for new roadways. But he said it makes no sense to try to raise money by charging people to use something that already exists.
That's also the position of the Arizona Trucking Association, said organization President Anthony Bradley.
“We have a highway trust fund to build roads,'' he said. “And truckers pay a huge portion of that funding.”
Bradley said charging people to drive on those already constructed amounts to “double taxation.”
But the truckers won't be providing funds for Tracy's initiative. Bradley said they would prefer to spend their resources on ways to find more money to build new roads, including the possibility of new or higher taxes.
The central question is that issue of double taxation.
Eric Anderson, transportation director for MAG, does not dispute the fact that Arizona motorists have already shelled out cash for the roads that are there. But Anderson said plans to build out the system — and, in particular, add lanes and capacity — have stalled because tax revenues haven't kept pace.
One problem is that state gasoline taxes, which have been pegged at 18 cents a gallon for two decades, are not growing as fast as the number of cars and trucks on the road due to improved fuel efficiency. Ditto for federal highway aid.
Anderson also said a half-cent sales tax approved by Maricopa County voters for freeway construction is bringing in 40 percent less now than was anticipated in 2003.
And then there's the fact that state lawmakers have siphoned off some gasoline levy revenues each year to help offset the cost of keeping the Department of Public Safety on the road without using other tax dollars.
Tracy said the one answer is simply increase the state gasoline tax. And Bradley said the rate should be indexed to account for inflation, rather than a flat per-gallon fee.
But Anderson said toll lanes can raise a lot of money quickly.
He said one idea is to actually double the number of HOV lanes in each direction, using revenues from the tolls to pay off the costs. That gets a second lane for carpoolers, motorcyclists and mass transit — as well as the lone-driving motorists willing to pay — without having to find another source of revenues.
Anderson said, though, the plan could also take the form of simply adding tolls to existing HOV lanes without widening the roadway. He added the plan is to charge tolls on existing HOV lanes only when an additional lane can be constructed with the revenues to increase freeway capacity.
The initiative could be a race against the clock.
Anderson said plans could be ready to proceed as early as a year from now. That would be before voters get a chance to even consider the initiative, assuming it makes the ballot.
The idea of toll lanes is not new. Anderson said there already are special lanes in Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas and Houston.