Western drivers may have to pay tolls to avoid gridlock on freeways

Toll roads, largely confined to the eastern United States, are beginning to make inroads in the West, where they have been about as popular as rattlesnake stew. Faced with shrinking public funds and the growing need to build more highways, a number of local governments are looking at installing toll booths as a way to help finance new projects.

Only Kansas and Oklahoma currently have toll roads of any consequence among states west of the Mississippi. Now projects are being considered in California and Colorado.

They join two pay highways that have been under construction for some time in Texas near Houston.

``There has been movement in some of the states because there isn't enough federal or state money to go around,'' says Jim McCarthy, chief of the policy evaluation branch of the Federal Highway Administration.

Toll roads, besides providing at least partial funding by users, often can be built quicker.

Relying on state or federal largess can result in roads being laid down piecemeal, section by section, as money gets appropriated.

Advocates also think turnpikes are a more equitable way to pay for highways.

But toll roads have their drawbacks, not the least of which is the inconvenience of stopping at booths and the congestion that often builds up as a result.

Some critics also consider them a form of ``double jeopardy.'' Why, they ask, should people - already helping to pay for highways through gasoline and other taxes - have to pay tolls, too?

Nationwide, there are some 4,628 miles of toll roads, more than half of which exist on the federal Interstate system. Many were built in the 1950s - before the 90 percent federal funding of Interstates, enacted by Congress in 1956, got into the pipeline to the states.

Much of the interest remains in toll-familiar Eastern states, such as Florida.

But some Western states want to join the pay-as-you-go parade.

The California Legislature recently passed a bill that would construction of the first public toll roads in the state - in Orange County south of Los Angeles.

The controversial measure now sits on the desk of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who is expected to sign it.

The legislation was pushed by local lawmakers who believe tollgates are necessary to help get more asphalt laid. Orange County's population has been growing by more than 35,000 people a year, while road construction has been stagnant.

Traditionally, California has clung to its gasoline tax to help finance new highways.

A few counties, though, have been forced to raise local sales taxes to help meet costs.

Orange County voters rejected such a move in 1984.

``Our highways and freeways have become parking lots,'' says state Sen. John Seymour, an Orange County Republican who wrote the bill in the Legislature. ``I'm not in love with toll roads. But when you're in a crisis, you need every tool you can get,'' Mr. Seymour adds.

Orange County officials are studying three proposed routes, one of which will initially be designated for tolls. They will be helped in building the highway by the federal government.

This spring Congress lifted a longstanding prohibition on federal financing of toll roads for seven pilot projects around the country.

Under the pending legislation, up to 35 percent of the cost of toll road construction can come from the federal highway fund.

Orange County officials hope to finance about half of their road with developer fees. Tolls will account for about 15 percent.

In Colorado, four local governments in the Denver area are hoping to build a toll road without state or federal funding. The three counties (Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas) and one city (Aurora), backed by moral and some economic support from private interests, want to lay a 50-mile loop around southeastern Denver.

Some 70 percent of the cost of the controversial, $1 billion project would be paid with tolls, while another 15 percent would come from property owners near the right of way.

The rest is to come from special local fees and taxes, such as an auto registration surcharge.

Despite these moves, Westerners are not likely to abandon their long-held antipathy to toll roads wholesale. The California law, for instance, was passed only after a spirited debate.

Critics branded the roadways ``un-Californian,'' ``elitist,'' and a ``symbol of Eastern decadence.''

Even then the measure was passed with several restrictions: Toll roads could only be put in Orange County - and only then as a last financial resort. The booths can only be put on roadways that parallel an existing freeway, so drivers have a choice.

``There is a lot of antipathy toward them,'' says Keith Gilbert of the American Automobile Association of Southern California.

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