Senate gives final approval to allow more toll roads in Utah — perhaps beginning with Little Cottowood Canyon


Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Traffic was brisk in Little Cottonwood Canyon Friday, Feb. 5, after an overnight storm dropped some snow at the resorts. Phase 2 of the Mountain Accord process is being launched. Its emphasis will be to deal with existing traffic problems in the two Cottonwood canyons.

The Utah Senate gave the final green light Thursday to a bill that could lead to creating more toll roads throughout the state.

It voted 26-0 to agree to House amendments to SB71, and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his possible signature.

The bill allows use of newer high-tech electronic tolling methods. That could include systems with cameras that read license plates, deduct toll amounts from online accounts set up by drivers, or send bills to car owners’ homes.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, sponsored the bill especially to enable tolling to reduce crowding in Little Cottonwood Canyon in his district, when anticipated construction adds a lane there in 2020 or so. “It incentivizes car pooling or taking a bus,” he said.

But the Senate president said it could have other applications statewide.

For example, the Utah Department of Transportation now figures that about one of every five cars in express lanes on Interstate 15 are driven by scofflaws not paying tolls via electronic transponders. Niederhauser said newer systems that read license plates could automatically bill all people.

Also, Niederhauser said in the far future, widespread tolling could someday replace the gasoline tax to fund highways. He notes the state now uses $600 million in sales tax every year to subsidize roads because the gas tax does not cover all costs. Higher-mileage car and electric and alternative-fuel vehicles have had a lot to do with that.

Niederhauser envisions the possibility of someday charging people based on how many miles they drive. Also, tolls could discourage driving at peak times by charging higher rates.

Still, Niederhauser said he does not expect to see more tolling for several years, but said it is important to expand tolling powers now “because UDOT plans roads 10 years, 20 year in advance — and having that policy in place will help them in planning.”

Feb. 28: It’s looking likely that toll roads are in Utah’s future — starting with the crowded Wasatch canyons

By Taylor Anderson

The Utah House has signed off on a Senate bill that would make it easier to expand toll roads throughout the state.

The bill initially dealt only with using surveillance cameras to collect money from existing tolls. But an amendment on the Senate floor shortly before it passed removed lawmakers from the role of signing off on tolls for existing highways — leaving that up to non-elected state officials.

SB71 passed the House on Wednesday despite concerns from anti-tax Republicans and from some members who expressed concerns about the impact of future open-road tolling on low-income drivers.

Supporters said the bill would lead to a time when drivers pay the actual costs of driving on Utah’s roads, which lawmakers say are a drain on the state budget.

“We’re [currently] moving $600 million out of the general fund over to subsidize our roads,” said Rep. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton. “We have got to look for a different funding model.”

Taking themselves out of the equation, and leaving it up to the Utah Department of Transportation and Transportation Commission to add tolls on existing roads, has allowed lawmakers to avoid hiking the tax per gallon of gas this session.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said she was concerned new tolling would hit poor drivers hardest.

“Our citizens may reap some negative impacts because we are opening existing roads up to tolls,” Kwan said.

Lawmakers who pushed the latest version of the bill said they didn’t want growing, undeveloped areas of the state that are most likely to build new highways to be subject to tolls while developed areas along Interstate 15 would escape such fees.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, the bill’s sponsor, has said he envisioned tolling the crowded canyons in the Wasatch Mountains.

The House slightly changed the bill to require a study of tolling rental and out-of-state cars, so the Senate must make a procedural vote before the bill goes to the governor for his final action.

Feb. 6: Bill to expand tolls statewide clears next-to-last hurdle

A bill that could allow tolls on any or all existing roads statewide — perhaps as a replacement someday to the state’s gasoline tax — sped past its next-to-last checkpoint on Tuesday.

The House Transportation Committee voted 9-1 to approve SB71 and sent it to the full House for consideration. It previously passed the Senate on a 26-3 vote.

The bill allows use of newer high-tech electronic tolling methods. That could include systems with cameras that read license plates, deduct toll amounts from online accounts set up by drivers, or send bills to drivers’ homes.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he started pushing the bill especially to allow tolls to reduce crowding in Little Cottonwood Canyon in his district. But he now sees it as a solution to wider problems.

He said the state’s gasoline tax once covered all costs of Utah’s highways, but now falls far short. Because of electric and hybrid cars that largely escape that tax — and better gas mileage by gas-powered cars — the state’s general fund now subsidizes highways by $600 million a year.

He said gasoline tax will soon be entirely obsolete, and a replacement must be found. “Tolling has to be one of those options,” he said, along with perhaps charging a tax on miles driven in the state.

He said tolls may ensure that people who use the roads also pay for them. He said current subsidies encourage more driving and congestion.

Committee Chairman Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, said one advantage of tolls over other ways to fund highways is that they could be priced differently for peak driving times, perhaps giving a financial incentive to avoid those times.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said using new high-tech systems may also help enforce laws against people who use Interstate 15 express lanes without paying tolls. The Utah Department of Transportation has estimated that one of every five cars using those lanes does so illegally.

“Will this bill enable toll roads next year? No. Will it be two years or three years? Maybe. But UDOT needs this kind of policy in place so as they are planning decades in the future they know there’s a policy that will help it deal with roads,” Niederhauser said.

He said existing law allows imposing tolls only on new or widened roadways. He said it would be more fair to allow tolling also on existing roads so that not only people in newer areas would be hit with tolls.

“This is for the future,” he said about his bill.

Rick Clasby, with the Utah Trucking Association, opposed the move. He said passing on the costs of tolls to shipping customers would prove near impossible, and said the association would prefer increasing fuel taxes to raise needed revenues.

Jan. 19: With last-minute change, Utah Senate passed a bill that leaves lawmakers out of toll road decisions, while opening door to tolling

Senators made a surprise, last-minute change before passing a bill that would open the door to tolling on all Utah highways, not just newly built ones.

Lawmakers made the policy change Tuesday on the Senate floor that will keep them out of the decision to add open-road tolling in places like the Wasatch Canyons, West Davis Corridor and Mountain View Corridor.

As lawmakers prepared for a typically procedural final vote before sending SB71 to the House, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, proposed that they change the final bill and allow UDOT to eventually toll existing highways without approval of the Legislature.

Most senators, including sponsor and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, supported the idea.

“This policy has to be statewide and available on any road,” Niederhauser said, “to be fair to everyone.”

The change caught some senators off guard and led at least two to vote against the final bill over procedure.

“Yes, it can be done,” said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville. “The question is should it be done?”

The change came less than 24 hours after Niederhauser said his bill wouldn’t lead to tolling on existing roads.

“They cannot toll existing capacity without the Transportation Commission and the Legislature working on it,” he said Monday.

On Tuesday, lawmakers voted to allow UDOT to add tolling on already-built roads. That, Niederhauser said shortly after the vote, was how it should be.

“It’s better to take it out of that political realm and put it in the hands of UDOT who is going to do this not based on pure politics,” Niederhauser said.

The bill still passed 26-3, with three Republicans voting against, and will be taken up in the House.

Lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill said it wouldn’t be right to make it more difficult to add open-road tolling to highways in parts of Utah that are already developed and leave the growing areas subject to tolls.

SB71 doesn’t discuss creating a process that would be necessary to actually collect open-road tolls. But it removes restrictions in current law that would allow UDOT to work toward tolls on state highways. Niederhauser imagined Utah drivers one day may set up tolling accounts when registering their cars each year.

The bill also would allow UDOT to use surveillance cameras that scan every passing license plate, which would help them keep track of unpaid tolls.

If the House passes the bill, lawmakers will address one of the central themes of the legislative session. Lawmakers say Utah has been subsidizing driving to the tune of $600 million a year from its fund that primarily goes to education and other services.

The Senate already indicated it wasn’t interested in hiking the tax drivers pay for each gallon of gas. Lawmakers are looking at raising the cost of registering electric cars, saying those cars avoid the gas tax. They’re also considering a bill that would raise the price of a driver license.


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Feb. 5: Utah Senate passed a bill that could lead to more tolling, better electronic tracking of drivers

A bill that would pave the way to more widespread tolling in Utah — including in its congested and popular Wasatch Front canyons — is on its way to the House after senators unanimously voted in favor Monday.

SB71 wouldn’t immediately lead to more tolling on existing roads, but would allow the Department of Transportation to use technology that will be used to collect money from drivers on existing and future tollways.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who’s sponsoring the bill after he’s seen congestion worsen in Little Cottonwood Canyon near his Sandy home, said the type of electronic tracking envisioned by the bill is “the future, by the way.”

Niederhauser and other lawmakers have decried the eroded buying power of the gas tax as cars become more efficient and more drivers buy cars that don’t run on gas. They also say road funding is taking $600 million from Utah’s general fund every year, which lawmakers called a “subsidy” that is encouraging drivers to hop into cars rather than mass transit.

“In this subsidy, people aren’t experiencing the true cost of driving on the road,” Niederhauser said. “People want to demand more roads because of the subsidy. We’re having to build larger roads or deal with the congestion that comes from that.”

License-plate-reading cameras can be linked to software that can map whenever a license plate passes a camera. SB71 would restrict the Department of Transportation to use that information only for collecting money for tolls. Better tracking could also lead to online accounts for tolling.

The cameras could track whether a driver has unpaid tolls, and the state could prevent a driver from renewing a registration if he or she has unpaid tolls or penalties. The bill would allow a penalty for tolls that aren’t paid within a month of the state sending a notice of an unpaid toll.

State law restricts the Department of Transportation from adding new tollways without legislative approval. It can, however, begin tolling “additional capacity lanes.”

“Little Cottonwood Canyon is an existing road, but we appropriated money last year … to build an additional lane up there,” Niederhauser said, which could be opened up to tolling.

The bill is now waiting for a committee assignment in the House.

Jan. 24: Bill to enable toll road in Little Cottonwood Canyon advances — may lead to expanded tolls that replace state gasoline tax

A proposal designed to bring a toll road to Little Cottonwood Canyon sped past its first obstacle Wednesday — with hints that toll roads may spread statewide and become a major funding replacement for current gasoline taxes.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-0 to endorse SB71 to make it easier for the state to use electronic tolling. Among the provisions: allowing new systems that avoid toll booths by using TV cameras to read license plates of passing cars, deduct tolls from online accounts or send bills to the vehicle’s owner.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, whose district includes Little Cottonwood Canyon, said he is sponsoring the bill in large part to more easily allow a toll road there to reduce congestion.

“On a weekend or on a snow day at Alta or Snowbird … you cannot find a parking place if you get up in the canyon at 10 a.m.,” he said. “It’s unbelievable congestion.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) President of the Senate, Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, gets ready to open the 2018 legislative session at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

When the canyon closes temporarily for avalanche control, he said traffic backs up for miles “and I can’t get out of my subdivision.” He said a toll would encourage carpooling or the use of mass transit to help solve problems.

But Niederhauser also sees expansion of toll roads statewide as a way to help ensure that motorists pay more of the cost of the highways they use. He said the general fund now subsidizes highways by $600 million annually, and he would like to see that money go instead to schools.

“I believe in five to 10 years that the gas tax will be obsolete,” or at least irrelevant as more electric and alternative fuel vehicles are purchased that entirely escape that tax. He said the gas tax now already pays only about half the cost of highways.

“How are we going to fund these roads?” he asked. “Tolling has to be one of those options. I don’t like it. I know the public doesn’t like it,” but he said few options remain as the gas tax collects less and less revenue.

Committee members said they also see tolling as a major part of the future — and said similar technology may even someday track the number of miles that vehicles travel as the basis of a new tax to that would replace the gasoline tax.

“Eventually I can see us phasing out gas tax and going strictly toll,” said Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Kevin T. Van Tassell listens during Senate Floor Time at the Utah State Capitol Thursday March 9, 2017.

Niederhauser added, “This is just the beginning about how we are going to fund cars in the future. We have electric cars coming. We might have hydrogen cars coming. How are they going to participate” in highway funding?

Using tolls to reduce canyon congestion is more feasible than building trains up the canyons, as some have proposed, Niederhauser said.

“That’s billions of dollars,” he said of a canyon rail system. “If we’re to prioritize transit on where it is needed the most, canyon transportation is going to be down the list a ways.”

Niederhauser noted that existing law already allows toll roads in Utah. “This is a modernization bill to deal with modern technologies and how we will toll in the future.”