The head of the state transportation department drew "snickers and groans" from the crowd at a public hearing as he said he wouldn't proceed with a toll road until he felt there was strong public support. One man said the public had lost all faith in the process and in the department really listening to the people.
Sharp applause broke out when the official finally acknowledged that the idea of a toll road probably faced more opposition than support.
You may think the meeting took place on the west side of Salt Lake County, where a lot of cities, and now the County Council, have passed resolutions opposing a toll road for the proposed Mountain View Corridor, which would link I-80 to northern Utah County.
It didn't. It took place in Knoxville, Tenn., and the details were reported by the Knoxville News Sentinel.
But it could have taken place here, or in Atlanta, where the state recently decided to shelve the idea of a toll road because, The Associated Press reported, "of public opposition."
Last week, when the Salt Lake County Council voted unanimously to join Mayor Peter Corroon in a resolution against tolling, they did so out of a sense of fairness. It would be unfair to toll a highway on the county's west side, when freeways remain free on the east side. Or as Council Chairman Michael Jensen told this newspaper, "The west side has helped build all the other roads, so why should the west side be punished by having a toll road just for them?"
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. For decades, Americans have been weaned on the concept of the freeway, a term that implies its users don't have to pay. In truth, however, until recently, a good share of the cost to build freeways was born by the federal government. West-siders really did help pay for I-15, I-215 and I-80, but the list of west-side contributors stretched all the way to San Francisco and on to Hawaii, just as the east-side contributors stretched from here to Maine and Florida and all points between.
Their contributions were greatly appreciated as they lowered the amount Utah had to come up with on its own. And Utahns didn't seem to mind paying a little to help build freeways elsewhere. But as with cheap gas, tail fins and rumble seats, those days are gone.
Which is why states all over the land are holding meetings to discuss things like tolls, gas-tax hikes or the possibility of selling highways to private companies.
It's also why virtually all those proposals are met by sharp public opposition. What part of the word freeway doesn't the government understand?
The obvious answer to the fairness question in Salt Lake County is to begin charging tolls on the east side, as well. Don't laugh. In Pennsylvania the Turnpike Commission has asked the Federal Highway Administration for permission to begin charging tolls on I-80. It takes that kind of permission to charge tolls on an existing interstate, but if the feds agree, it could lead the way for similar plans elsewhere.
What the County Council and west-side cities here have failed to do is come up with something other than tolls to raise the roughly $2 billion needed to build the Mountain View Corridor a highway virtually all sides agree is needed. They keep mumbling about gas taxes (which have remained the same since 1997), general sales taxes or vehicle registration fees.
But here's the problem every one of those would lead to public opposition, too. Try raising gas taxes at a time when no one wants to see the cost of a gallon go up even further. A sales-tax hike may be the safest route, but it's hard for purists to explain why someone buying a shirt should be forced to contribute to highway costs.
The Utah Taxpayers Association did an analysis recently that showed how "congestion pricing" would be cheaper than a sales-tax hike. With congestion pricing, drivers would pay tolls that vary according to traffic conditions.That one makes a lot of sense. It still would be a tough sell to a public that is used to having much of its highway costs hidden. But this is a problem that has to be solved through leadership, even if the answers are unpopular.