March 6, 2018 9:45 AM, EST
Utah House Passes Bill Giving Transportation Commission More Freedom to Toll
Gordon Ross/Flickr

The Utah House of Representatives passed a bill that grants the state transportation commission freedom to establish tolls on all roads.

Senate Bill 71 passed by a vote of 49-21, authorizing the transportation commission to establish tolling systems even on existing highways. Previously the group only had authority to set up tolls on new road projects.

States authorities throughout the country still need federal approval to toll roads that are part of the interstate system.

Utah’s Transportation Commission, an independent body of officials appointed by the governor, prioritizes projects and decides how funds are spent.

Shane Marshall, deputy director of Utah’s Department of Transportation, explained that the state legislature was the sole authority on tolling “existing capacity” roads prior to this bill. UDOT is charged with executing the tolls that the legislature — or, with this bill, the commission — approves.

“Now they have shifted that decision-making from the legislature to the transportation commission,” Marshall said. “If the transportation commission decides they want to toll something, then they would give us the authority to actually charge that toll, but they’re the only ones that can establish a tollway.”

Under this bill, existing roads could be tolled as they are, without being widened. UDOT may “establish, expand and operate tollways for the purpose of funding the acquisition of right-of-way and the design, construction, reconstruction, operation, enforcement and maintenance of or impacts from a transportation route for use by the public,” according to SB 71.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser and Rep. Mike Schultz, also allows UDOT to use cameras to monitor a tollway and request a hold on the registration of a motor vehicle if the owner has failed to pay a toll.

The only tolling system in Utah is a high-occupancy vehicle express lane on a 75-mile stretch of Interstate 15 that runs through Salt Lake City. Marshall said the route passes through an urban area along the Wasatch Front, a region in north central Utah bordered by the Wasatch Mountains.

Although the bill grants the transportation commission more authority in setting up tolls, Utah drivers should not expect to see tolling gantries crop up in rapid succession. Commissioner J. Kent Millington said that, while the bill expands the commission’s tolling abilities, the group will not rush to establish more tolls. He said that the commission has had the ability to establish tolling systems on new roads for the 13 years that he has served on it, and that the state still only has the solitary tolling system on I-15.

“I’m not so sure that the commission would run right out and start tolling all the roads. I think that the commission is very careful in its approach to tolling,” Millington said.

Millington said this bill is part of a larger effort to examine funding mechanisms to supplement the revenue brought in from the fuel tax. Utah’s tax has been 29 cents per gallon for diesel and gasoline since Jan. 1, 2016.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon while the diesel tax is 24.4 cents per gallon. Neither rate has changed since 1993. Federal fuel taxes are used to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which assists states with maintenance and construction projects.

“It certainly has not escaped our view that the gas tax has got to be altered,” Millington said. “We’re aware of the funding problems, but I just don’t anticipate a rush to put tolls on existing roadways. There’s nothing imminent that I can see at all.”

In 2014, three states attempted to toll portions of their interstate as part of a federal pilot. However, Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri were not able to complete the pilot as a result of widespread local outcry.

Like Millington, Marshall said SB 71 has started an important conversation about the future of transportation funding. He also said he does not think Utah drivers will start to see tolling gantries constructed any time soon.

“The bill sponsor really wanted to just send up the flag and say transportation funding needs to change. This is one way it could change,” Marshall said. “Transportation funding is a hot topic, and this bill sparks that conversation.”