Taking its toll
South Carolina seeks to toll I-95; other states singing privatization tune

By David Tanner
staff writer

From Indiana to Texas and from California to Virginia, state officials are hoping to get roads paid for and maintained through tolls. And to no surprise, but much to the chagrin of hard-working truckers, those tolls - and toll roads themselves - are adding up.

South Carolina is the latest state to join the chorus, singing the praises of tolling and attempting to capitalize on a federal pilot program.

South Carolina joins Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia as one of the states to show interest in pursuing tolling through a federal pilot program included the 2005 highway-funding legislation, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU.

The pilot program, administered by the Federal Highway Administration, will allow up to three states to introduce tolling on existing interstates.

South Carolina officials made their intentions known this spring when they announced plans to apply for Interstate 95 to be included in the pilot tolling program. The South Carolina Department of Transportation sent a written "expression of interest" to the FHWA, requesting to be considered for the pilot program.

Susan Johnson, SCDOT director of engineering outreach, said the letter is the first step in an involved process leading up to consideration by both the FHWA and state lawmakers.   

The whole process could take several years, once you add in the formal application process, environmental review and a required approval by the South Carolina Legislature.

Johnson said South Carolina, where officials have traditionally been opposed to tolls on existing routes, wants to leave the option open with the aging I-95, which was built in segments from 1963 to 1977.

"The primary reason is the condition of the road, as well as the service of the road," she said. "We are hoping to receive reconstruction and rehabilitation out of the tolls."

The pilot program has attracted the interest of other states as well.

Missouri filed an FHWA application for permission to toll a portion of Interstate 70 in the St. Louis area, and Virginia is in the early stages of applying for a toll on Interstate 81. North Carolina officials are considering tolling that state's portion of I-95.

In addition to rehabilitation and reconstruction, the FHWA pilot program also allows for private investment in the toll roads.

Other voices in the chorus
Many other public-private partnerships are popping up in other programs created under the SAFETEA-LU umbrella.

In Louisiana, a House committee has approved a bill to allow a public-private partnership for toll roads and bridges. This is not part of the three-state pilot program that South Carolina is interested in.

If approved by the legislature, the Louisiana bill could pave the way for expansions of Interstate 10 and the completion of Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans.

Rep. Roy Quezaire, D-Donaldsville, sponsored the bill to allow the state to use private partners to build toll roads or bridges, or maintain existing roads.

In Indiana the legislature approved a bill that led to the controversial lease of the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road to a private consortium from Spain and Australia.

Such public-private partnerships have opened the door to foreign investors who have so far outbid domestic companies on proposals like the Chicago Skyway in Illinois, and the multi-billion-dollar Trans-Texas Corridor along I-35 and I-69 in the Lone Star State.

Private partnerships are also popping up in California, with the South Bay Expressway near San Diego; in Utah, with a proposed new freeway near Salt Lake City; and in Virginia near Washington, DC, with the private lease of the Dulles Greenway.