Utah developer pike does well

July 4, 2003
By Peter Samuel

Twenty months after it opened the owners of a small tollroad in South Weber City Utah are happy with their project. Bruce Stevens, VP at the Adams Avenue (AA) Parkway says they are now running 1,300 vehicles a day, about six times the volume when they opened. And the volume is edging up week by week.

    "It's going well. We're happy," says Stephens, who with his father Doug Stephens (75) are local developers and property owners operating under the private company South Town Properties (spelling please). Toll revenues are now enough to pay their bills Stephens says and they are pleased with the result. They built the $10m 1,300m (0.8-mile) long tollroad principally to open up an isolated 200 acres of land for development, using about $5m of their own funds and $5m financed with borrowing secured to the yield from taxes of a special tax district established for the project. Utah DOT provided the enterprise with a $2m loan.

They have previously said that 1,500 tolls/day is their breakeven point, and that they expect to be in the black this summer.

It seemed logical to levy tolls since majority of the people benefitting from the pike are people going into Ogden, not into the Stephens' development. Father Doug and son Bruce trace the tollroad back to a decision they made to try for it in 1993.

    He'd been unsuccessfully lobbying for the road to be built as a public road for almost 25 years.

    The head of the local hospital and other local officials including the fire and rescue service strongly supported it. The deal is when they are on emergency duty the emergency vehicles go toll-free. Otherwise they pay like anyone else.

Tolls

The base AA Parkway toll for a 2-axle vehicle is $1.00 (extra axles 25c). Those establishing an account get a 10% discount and have the choice of a barcode sticker or a magstripe card.

The toll system is from United Toll Systems. It uses Smart Loops for axle counts and has gates as well as cameras for enforcement. It has four toll lanes and three toll booths, the inside pari being reversible. Most of the time only the central toll booth needs to be staffed. Customers with account cards can self-swipe them in the outer express lanes.

    Stephens says the toll system is "more than we need at the moment" but they asked UTS to make provision for "everything we'd ever need. It is wired for an electronic toll system and could dispense with the gates and rely on cameras for enforcement if they wanted to speed toll collection.

"It worked nicely right out of the box, and produces good reports for auditing," says Stephens, though there were newspaper reports of a problem reconciling vehicle numbers in the first couple of weeks, which the reports said was soon fixed.

    The toll plaza is now staffed 24 hours 7-days/week drawing on about twenty trained toll collectors. Midnight to 5am there are virtually no customers, Stevens says, but the collector on duty provides security against vandalism, and can do some cleaning and clerical work (and perhaps get in a sneaky snooze?) The small-hours shift saves on lock-up and opening costs too. During the day there's a toll supervisor in an office nearby. He fills in collecting tolls when the sole collector needs a break.

The Parkway doglegs about a mile up a steel hillside. Its major engineering feat is a 146m (480ft) span made of seven weathering steel (Corten) girders that bridges with four traffic lanes over both the Weber River and the Union Pacific RR transcontinental mainline tracks. Immediately beyond the bridge it connects to an existing interchange (IC-85) with I-84. The interchange has long served Hill Air Force Base and other points south of the interstate. However the railroad tracks and the Weber River, plus the steep hillside beyond, blocked off direct access from the interstate north into Washington Terrace and Ogden until the new pike was built.

    It provides a direct connection between the interstate and the central commercial area of Ogden. The pike is 4-lanes undivided and posted for max 35mph (56km/hr). It is a city street with no parking allowed but curb cuts. It is pleasantly curved for a subtly changing view for travelers and planted with trees and shrubs.

The design of the bridge and pavement met Utah DOT specifications. UDOT tried to get the Stephens to build a roundabout at the top of the northside ramps in place of the conventional diamond IC intersection with Stop signs at I-84. That delayed the project some months before UDOT agreed that there really wasn't the space for the circle and that it wasn't worth the extra cost.

Traffic mostly commuters

Stephens says so far most of the traffic is commuters, people coming to work in central Ogden and Washington Terrace from outside the city. It saves 7km (4mi) and about ten minutes along the local main street Washington Boulevard (US-89) for motorists entering Ogden from I-84 and the east.

They have noticed a surge of customers on a couple of occasions in which there have been backups on the interstate from an incident, so the pike is established as an alternate route.

"People know about us now even if they are not frequent customers," says Stephens.

    All the school buses from the west direction are now using the tollroad. The school district decided the tollroad was quicker and cheaper, Stevens says. It provides better access to the major area hospital also, and sees several ambulances come through each day.

The development has gotten two small office buildings since the tollroad, but the commercial real estate market is now dead in the water, so nothing else is stirring. Eventually, Stephens hopes to develop apartment and townhouses along the top of the hillside to take advantage of the spectacular views over the Great Salt Lake and the desert and mountains beyond.

"It is very pretty. It has great views down over the valley. There is a 400ft (120m) drop from the top to the river."

The tollroad has a couple of pickup trucks that maintain the private part of the road, including snowplowing. The upper part of the road was built in the same design and construction contract, but it has been deeded to the city and is maintained by its crews. All the plans were

Doug Stephens (senior) once told a reporter the toll road was "a gamble worse than going to Vegas." At the official opening the state governor Mike Leavitt said the road was "born of necessity" and that it was "great tribute to a risktaker." President of the turnpike company is Doug Stephens, 75, a quietly spoken elegant man. He'd lobbied for the road to be built by the state, and it was the governor (which Gov?) who made the tolling suggestion first, back in 199?.

They opened and began tolling June 27, 2001.

The l'il pike has had a mixed reception. A number of locals say the toll is excessive and a couple say the road should be made free. Local environmentalists complain that the pike did not have to go through the same long alternatives analysis and public review procedures of major public projects. But generally it seems to be welcomed with most local leaders hailing the facility as a major asset to the community, and its private financing as good.

It has gotten good press. A SALT LAKE TRIBUNE reporter noted the equity of having the large landowners and businesses that will benefit the most from the project provide most of the finance. The project was initially called the Adams Avenue Turnpike. It is an extension of an existing Adams Avenue. Before opening the Stephens decided Parkway was a better name than Turnpike though the private company that owns it is still the Adams Avenue Turnpike LLC.

They have spent not a penny on advertising or marketing, with the thought that in a small community free publicity and word of mouth are sufficient.

HISTORY: The Weber Canyon which the new pike traverses is historic ground. The new steel girder bridge of the AA Parkway crosses the Weber River near the site of a long-gone private toll bridge that operated in the 1850s offering the Conestoga wagons of emigrants and traders a surer crossing than a free ford. Material in the local library says that the bridge charged a loaded wagon a $1.00 toll, perhaps $50 in today's currency. The Canyon is one of the major ways through the Wasatch Mountain Range, the great north-south barrier to east-west movement. The Weber Canyon was part of the Oregon Trail, established in the 1840s and one of three major routes via which the West was settled. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific made their famous meeting just a short distance west of the Canyon in 1869 and the UP line which passes under AA Parkway bridge remains a major transcontinental route.

The Lincoln Highway however was routed through Parleys Canyon where I-80 is located running directly into Salt Lake City. Ogden Utah (pop 150k) at the mouth of Weber Canyon is 50km (30mi) north of the center of Salt Lake City and has become part of the SLC metro area (pop 1.3m). TRnews 2003-07-04


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