Friday, May 4, 2007

More minuses than pluses for Highway 75 toll road

Those beating the drums for turning state Highway 75 from Ketchum to south of Bellevue into a toll road have developed unrealistic visions of dollars by looking at the endless stream of vehicles creeping north in the mornings and crawling south in late afternoons and not thought much beyond that.

Although some Wood River Valley transportation officials are fired up about a toll road, an Idaho Transportation Department official describes those hopes this way: "It's an idea that has a long way to go before it grows legs." In fact, he said, the state transportation board hasn't even mentioned it.

And for good reason. A toll road to generate revenues for an estimated $180 million in improvements and expansion of Highway 75 has plenty of social, engineering and regulatory costs and obstacles not yet mentioned by toll road boosters.

A toll road is captivating to some because both state and federal funds once thought amply available have virtually vanished. The only way to dramatically improve the flow of state highway funds is for the state to increase the fuel tax and/or boost vehicle registration fees, decisions as politically touchy as they are financially beneficial.

(Forget a federally-financed light rail transit line as an alternative: the projected costs of a 20-mile line would be $700 million, of which half—$350 million!—would have to be financed by Blaine County in addition to shouldering $10 million to $15 million in operating costs.

A large percentage, if not most, of the regular commuters on Highway 75 are middle- to low-income construction and landscaping workers who've moved farther south to find affordable housing. Just how intolerable would tolls twice a day, five days a week be for them, and would employers pay the tolls to keep workers, then add those costs to their services? If the valley had an effective and efficient bus system, which it doesn't, commuting workers could afford to avoid tolls by taking a bus.

As a matter of percentages, the bulk of toll costs would be borne by those who can least afford them, and thus subsidize benefits for a small percentage of high-income commuters.

And a toll road would require planners to return to the drawing board and re-work their current designs.

Until the concept of a toll road (it would be Idaho's first) catches on among state planners, valley transportation activities should focus their energies not on dreams, but finding ways to develop realistic revenues to carry out Highway 75 improvements already planned and committed to preliminary blueprints.

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