SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers took a first step Wednesday toward charging tolls to drive in Little Cottonwood Canyon, with the unanimous committee approval of a bill sponsored by Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
The Sandy Republican told members of the Senate Transportation Committee that SB71 is needed now to help ease traffic along the route to the canyon's ski resorts, but eventually could be used elsewhere to raise more revenues for roads.
The bill, which now goes to the full Senate, allows license plates of vehicles in a designated area to be scanned to assess tolls and penalties, if necessary, including putting a hold on a vehicle's registration.
Niederhauser said streets including Wasatch Boulevard are jammed year-round with drivers making their way to and from the canyon entrance. Sometimes it's so bad, he said, that he and his neighbors can't get out of their nearby subdivision.
Paying a toll to use the canyon road will serve as an incentive for drivers to ride buses or carpool, Niederhauser said. He said light-rail train service to the resorts is a possibility in the future, but a low transportation priority.
The Senate president called his bill a "modernization" of state laws on toll roads that are already being used to collect fees for solo drivers who choose to use high occupancy vehicle lanes along I-15.
But he said the bill also can help the state deal with what is now a $600 million shortfall between gas tax revenues and transportation spending, and increasing congestion along the Wasatch Front despite billions of dollars in road construction.
"It's coming on us a lot faster than I thought," Niederhauser said. "If we’re dealing with reality, I believe in five to 10 years the gas tax will be obsolete" as more and more drivers switch to electric and alternative fuel vehicles.
Tolling, he said, is one of the ways to ensure those using the roads are paying for them. Niederhauser acknowledged that he doesn't like toll roads and knows the public doesn't, either.
"We have to face this," he said.
Members of the committee raised some concerns about the bill, including how the license plate information collected by the Utah Department of Transportation would be handled and what impact tolls could have in other areas of the state.
Earlier in the day, Niederhauser told reporters the information collected would be purged by UDOT.
"This is not 'black helicopter,' (where) we’re trying to keep your information for a long period of time," he said.
Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said during the committee hearing that people affected by the canyon toll would presumably have the money to pay it because they can afford to ski.
But she said in other areas of the county, tolls could have an adverse effect on commuters because "everybody goes to work every day."
UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras told the committee there are no roads "on the books" the agency is looking to charge tolls to use. He said the use of tolls in Little Cottonwood Canyon was still being studied.5 comments on this story
Another committee member, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said he could see the state phasing out the gas tax in favor of toll roads, something that would hurt rural Utahns who don't have transit options.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy, said the state is going to have to look at new options to pay for transportation as the population grows, and tolling is one of those.
Buxton urged the committee members to think about, "as you drive home tonight and are in traffic, how hard would it be if there was twice as much traffic." He said the solution "all boils down to money."