[UPDATE: Arizona DOT started re-paving some sections of the Virgin River Gorge interstate during August, causing massive delays, and stranding motorists in triple-digit temperatures. See comments below.]
When I was a cub reporter in Salt Lake City, back in 1971, I interviewed the head of the Utah highway department about a new stretch of Interstate 15 being built through the Virgin River Gorge.
“That’s in Arizona,” I said. “Why is Utah building it?”
“Because Arizona refuses to,” he answered.
“Arizona says that corner of their state doesn’t connect to any other part of their state, so they don’t want to pay for it,” he said.
So Utah is paying for it?
“Actually Utah and Nevada decided to split it,” he said. “Arizona promised not to fight us about the route, as long as they didn’t have to pay for it.”
Utah and Nevada wanted the new route through the Arizona canyon badly. It shortened the route between Salt Lake and Las Vegas by about 30 miles – and it eliminated almost 60 miles of treacherous, two-lane U.S. 89-91 across “Utah Hill”. That stretch was notorious for horrible weather.
When the highway opened in 1972, it was hailed as one of the most scenic stretches of interstate in the country (and it still is – like a drive through the Grand Canyon). And it was one of the mostly costly, at that time. “Over a million dollars per mile is what it cost to build. It’s an engineering wonder,” the Utah official said. “It has sections of roadway literally hanging from the canyon walls.”
I was among the first to drive it. What a terrific piece of roadway it was.
But the questions about who would maintain the 26-mile section through Arizona, once it finally opened, were not adequately addressed.
It seemed Arizona would take some responsibility for it. After all, the Arizona highway patrol was out there immediately, enforcing the 55 m.p.h. speed limit – with gusto. (The Arizona troopers were stationed in nearby St. George, Utah – not Littlefield, a small Arizona town along the route.) When ticket revenue dropped off, with the repeal of the national 55 m.p.h. limit, Arizona re-imposed the “double-nickel” limit through much of the canyon (about
Over the years, Arizona sent more and more troopers to the area, to make sure tickets could be handed out around the clock. But maintenance crews were a little harder to find. Arizona, despite receiving federal funds for interstate projects, plus state gasoline tax revenue, always claimed to not have funds for maintenance. There’s quite a scandal in Arizona these days about diversion of highway money to cover general fund deficits.
As a newspaper editor in the area, I watched the road deteriorate, as Arizona took money out – in the form of traffic citations – but didn’t really put money back in.
This neglect has been going on for decades now. The once-marvelous road is now as scary to drive as Utah Hill used to be. Ruts are cut through each travel lane. Vehicles trying to traverse these ruts roads are thrown around dangerously – especially if their tires are worn. Control is difficult to maintain. Many traffic accidents, including those causing injury and even death, have been blamed on the poor condition of the road.
Arizona’s solutions, until now, include even more zealous enforcement of the reduced speed limit, and placing of a few bright orange warning signs about the roughness of the road.
But now there’s a new wrinkle: The condition of the road can no longer be ignored. Highway engineers say decades of neglect have allowed rust and corrosion to eat away at the bridges, supports, barriers and guardrails. Major repairs are urgently needed.
So, to pay for them, Arizona has now proposed turning its section of I-15 into a toll road!
Guess who has to pay? (Hint: Not people in Arizona; they still don’t use the road.) The people who would pay for the greatest share of the tolls are those who paid for it, in the first place: the citizens of Nevada and Utah.
Understandably, this has caused somewhat of an uproar. (Another one here.) As it is being reported now, Arizona is saying Utah “loaned” or “fronted” it the money for I-15 construction back in 1971. But that’s not how I remember it – I saw Utah construction crews building the road, not Arizona workers – and it’s not how the Utah highway official described the arrangement to me back then.
How should this problem be solved? The answer is for Arizona finally to take some responsibility. The road definitely needs major repairs. Arizona just treats the once-lovely Virgin River Gorge freeway as a radar trap, and a cash register.
Take money out, Arizona, and you have an ethical obligation to put money back in for maintenance and repair. (Check out Arizona’s tradition of chicanery in using traffic citations and photo enforcement for revenue generation, as I reported for The New York Times here.)
To charge a toll is to let Arizona off the hook, and avoid any responsibility for its decades of malfeasance. A toll is not the answer.
(If you know who to call, or write, to fight this, please post a comment below. I don’t, unfortunately.)
January 18, 2012