Tolls under scrutiny in North Carolina

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 4/2/2013

The battle against tolling proposals in North Carolina is being waged on many fronts.

Earlier this month, four state lawmakers filed a bill to prevent tolls from being levied on existing interstates unless OK’d by the North Carolina General Assembly in addition to the required permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The U.S. DOT granted preliminary approval in February 2012 for North Carolina to enter a pilot program to convert Interstate 95 into a toll road for the purpose of rebuilding the roadway.

Officials say I-95 is in need of $4.4 billion worth of rehab and expansion and an additional $12 billion in ongoing maintenance over the next 40 years.

North Carolina is one of three states approved to enter the federal pilot program for tolls, but to date no state has successfully converted an existing toll-free federal highway into a toll road.

State Republican Reps. Jeff Collins and John A. Torbett, along with Democratic Reps. Elmer Floyd and Michael Wray, want to keep it that way. They filed HB267 on March 6. It currently resides in the state House Committee on Transportation and has 17 cosponsors.

I-95 tolls in North Carolina would have devastating effects on commerce and trucking. As Land Line reported last year, roadway users would be on the hook to pay $30 billion in tolls over a 40-year period just to fund the $16.4 billion needed for construction and maintenance.

The Senate version of the bill, SB218, also filed March 6, originated with Republican Sen. Buck Newton and has six cosponsors. It resides in the Senate Committee on Transportation.

For the measure to become law, the two chambers must agree to pass common language and obtain the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory.

Last year, in the 112th Congress, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-NC, filed legislation to prevent I-95 from becoming a toll road. The bill did not pass, nor was it incorporated into the federal highway bill MAP-21, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.

A member of Ellmers' Capitol Hill staff said the congresswoman may consider filing a similar bill in the 113th Congress but did not disclose a timeframe. The House is on recess through April 9.

Tolls weren’t a big topic in North Carolina prior to 2002. That’s when the state’s General Assembly created the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

Current law calls for up to eight projects to be tolled and maintained by the Turnpike Authority, excluding I-95.

The state opened its first toll road, the Triangle Expressway, in 2011, and has plans on the books for five more.

Toll projects include the Mid-Currituck Bridge to the northern Outer Banks; the Cape Fear Skyway bridge at Wilmington; the Garden Parkway west of Charlotte; the Monroe Bypass east of Charlotte; and the Southeast Extension of the Triangle Expressway across southern Wake County, also known as route N.C. 540.

A bill in the state Senate, HB134 filed on Feb. 20, would remove the Garden Parkway from the list of mandatory Turnpike Authority toll projects and halt state funds from pursuing tolls on that project.

A separate bill, HB10, amended March 7, would also remove the Mid-Currituck Bridge and Cape Fear Skyway from the toll obligation.

The bills do not disrupt NCDOT’s mandate to build and toll the Monroe Bypass or the Triangle Expressway’s Southeast Extension.

As these efforts continue, other lawmakers continue to promote tolls and public-private partnerships as funding sources for road and bridge work.

Democratic Sen. Josh Stein filed a bill April 1 to establish a new North Carolina Infrastructure Development Authority. The bill, SB563, would “encourage and enable public-private partnerships” including those for highways and highway infrastructure.

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