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Carson Stilson, Southern Utah Now
Traffic flows along I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. Arizona is seeking permission to charge a toll on I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge to help pay for highway repairs.

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal that would require drivers to pay to use a stretch of I-15 in northwest Arizona is drawing fire from elected officials in Utah.

And those who live or work in St. George and Mesquite, Nev. — or travel between the two — don't like it, either.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he "strongly opposes" the Arizona Department of Transportation's plans to explore tolling on the 29.4-mile stretch of I-15 within Arizona's border.

"The I-15 corridor through Arizona is part of the … (federal) interstate program," Herbert said during Thursday's taping of his monthly news conference on KUED. "It's paid for by taxpayer dollars. I think it would be very bad policy to take a little stretch there that goes through Arizona and suddenly cause a toll situation there."

The Arizona Department of Transportation has filed an "expression of interest" with the Federal Highway Administration, requesting provisional acceptance as one of three projects within the federal government's Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program.

Arizona transportation officials want to make the 29.4-mile Arizona section of I-15 subject to tolling. Approximately 12 miles of that stretch of freeway passes through the Virgin River Gorge.

All eight bridges within the gorge area of I-15 need to be replaced, Arizona transportation officials said. They've also identified several other major repairs and safety improvements along Arizona's segment of I-15 that need to be completed.

Tom Thibault is one of the thousands of truck drivers who travel the stretch of freeway between St. George and Mesquite every day. And the prospect of paying a toll to do so doesn't sit well with him.

"We pay road taxes and fuel taxes," Thibault said. "I think they should use that money if they want to keep this road going. I don't see (how) putting a toll on it will help anybody out."

Gladys Soriano, a supervisor at Home Plate Diner in Mesquite, said she believes allowing tolling on I-15 would negatively affect local businesses.

"We have a lot of people who come down from St. George often in the mornings because they like to eat here," Soriano said. "And if they put a toll, they wouldn't come down as often."

According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the section of I-15 does not directly contribute to the state's economy.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says he'd rather see that stretch of freeway transferred to Utah than have Utahns be forced to pay tolls to Arizona to use it.

"If this segment of I-15 does not benefit Arizona's economy, then Arizona's economy would not be negatively impacted by having this portion of the (freeway) transferred to Utah," Chaffetz said.

The segment of I-15 that runs through the northwest corner of Arizona, connecting Utah and Nevada, "is a unique segment of the Interstate Highway System," he said.

"Arizona has legitimate concerns about having to use state tax dollars to fund a project that does not benefit Arizona's economy," Chaffetz said. "However, tolling residents of Utah and other states is not the best solution."

Herbert called the proposal "a reflection of Arizona just trying to find dollars wherever they can because their budget is so upside-down."

"We pay taxes into the system, we get money back from the federal highway system to help maintain our interstate highway system and other roads, and that's what Arizona should do," Herbert said. "(Tolling) would be bad policy, and I would oppose it 100 percent."

The Utah governor also takes issue with the fact that if Arizona is selected to participate in the FHA program, electronic tolling technologies could be used to exempt Arizona residents who live near I-15 from the tolls.

Herbert says he finds it "most egregious" that "everybody else will pay the toll, but if you're from Arizona, you will not have to pay the toll."

Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait said the concept of tolling on that stretch of I-15 will take "years of study and coordination before a conclusion is reached in how to best make the necessary infrastructure investments on I-15."

In the meantime, the department "remains committed to its duty to ensure that I-15 remains a safe corridor," Tait said.

Contributing: Alex Cabrero

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com