North Carolina bill would add toll roads

| 7/14/2006

Tolls could soon be coming to existing roads in North Carolina .

The state Senate recently approved a bill with a 47-1 vote that would let the North Carolina Turnpike Authority charge truck drivers and others on highways “contiguous” with toll roads. The only requirement for switching over the free roads would be that the change is needed to make the toll road financially feasible.

Until now, the authority’s charge has been restricted to planning new highways and bridges. Existing state law prohibits adding tolls to roads already built.

That could all change under the bill offered by Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Tarboro. The bill – SB1381 – has been forwarded to the House Transportation Committee for further consideration.

Jenkins’ bill doesn’t include specific projects but it seems to allow tolls on roads such as Interstate 485, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Revenue could be tapped to help construct two proposed toll projects in western Union County and in southern Gaston and western Mecklenburg counties. Statewide, the turnpike authority is studying seven projects.

This isn’t the only tolling initiative that Jenkins is working on this session. A separate effort would divert money from the state’s Highway Trust Fund for toll projects.

The bill would create a North Carolina Turnpike Encouragement and Assistance Program to reserve $12.5 million a year from urban loop funding for eligible toll projects.

Supporters say it would help close the gap between what tolls will pay for and what currently proposed turnpike projects actually cost, The Herald-Sun reported.

The measure would shift $25 million from the state’s general fund to loop funding in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The revenue is intended to prevent a squeeze on loop money.

The bill – SB1819 – is in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Another toll road plan on the table would include charging truckers and other drivers to cross the state’s border with Virginia on Interstate 95 to help pay for needed upkeep on the roadway.

Officials in Virginia already have signed off on the plan to construct a toll plaza at the states’ common border south of Richmond , VA , and charge cars $5 to cross. A higher fee would be applied to large trucks, which make up about 30 percent of I-95 traffic.

If enacted in North Carolina , it would need final approval from Congress.

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,” Jenkins 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.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor