North Carolina, Virginia border tolls sought for I-95

| 5/30/2006

Lawmakers in North Carolina and Virginia are taking steps toward going into the toll road business together.

About a month after officials in Virginia signed off on a bill authorizing a toll plaza to be placed on Interstate 95 at the border between Virginia and North Carolina, a Tar Heel State lawmaker has filed legislation that would do the same thing on his side of the state line. If enacted, it would need final approval from Congress.

If lawmakers in North Carolina and Congress sign off on charging drivers to cross the states’ common border south of Richmond, VA, cars would pay $5. A higher fee would be applied to large trucks, which make up about 30 percent of I-95 traffic.

The tolling compact could bring in nearly $65 million annually for each state, The Associated Press reported. It would require revenue to be spent on work for the nearly 50-year-old roadway.

North Carolina Department of Transportation officials estimate that I-95 through the state is in need of $4 billion in repairs.

Supporters say the disparity between revenue generated through fuel taxes and rising construction costs means that state leaders must consider alternative funding sources – including tolls.

“We proposed this to get the discussion started about the concept,” Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Tarboro, told The AP.

Gov. Mike Easley quashed a tolling effort three years ago. A spokesman for the governor recently told The AP he still opposes tolling existing roads. But Jenkins said Easley may have a change of heart given the circumstances.

The border-toll bill – SB1578 – is in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill follows up a proposal by Sen. Larry Shaw, D-Fayetteville, to turn all of I-95 in the state into a toll road. Shaw has yet to introduce a bill.

“It’s the only option we’ve got,” Shaw, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told NBC-17, a television station in Raleigh. “That’s why we say put (toll booths) at the border. We just want the traveling community that’s passing through to help pay for this road.”

Early this year, the NCDOT turned in an application to the Federal Highway Administration to preserve the state’s option of designating I-95 throughout the state as a pay-to-play route. If given federal approval, the General Assembly would be able to consider changing a state law that prohibits adding tolls to existing roads.

Opponents say the state should tap into some of a projected $1 billion surplus to replenish the state’s Highway Trust Fund for making upgrades. The fund is raided annually to cover budget shortfalls, NBC-17 reported.

Others say a toll is just a tax on drivers who already pay their dues at the fuel pump.

At a forum earlier this month, some elected officials and business people from communities along the 182-mile route told NCDOT officials that drivers would go out of their way to avoid tolls, according to The Fayetteville Observer. They said that would hurt businesses along the interstate, cut into anticipated toll revenues and lead to a large number of vehicles diverting to nearby secondary roads.