Toll roads OK'd in North Carolina

| 8/4/2006

The North Carolina Legislature has approved a bill that would authorize the state Turnpike Authority to toll certain roadways in the state.

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

A conference committee made up of select members from the state’s House and Senate reached agreement on provisions in the bill – SB1381 – in the waning hours of the regular session that ended early Friday, July 28, that would also allow up to six potential toll roads to be built. The plan requires direct legislative approval prior to construction for additional projects, The Associated Press reported.

The bill that is awaiting Gov. Mike Easley’s signature would allow the turnpike authority to place toll booths on a segment of Interstate 540 under construction near Raleigh. The three-mile segment stretches from Interstate 40 southwest to state Route 55.

Mayors in Wake County would get the final say on the project.

Toll revenues would be used to help pay for the construction of the outer beltway in Wake and Durham counties or to impose tolls on existing free roads if they connect to an existing or planned toll road, The Herald-Sun reported.

Proposed toll projects that could be built and operated by the turnpike authority are:

  • Cape Fear Skyway, a proposed bridge and road connecting Wilmington to Brunswick County;
  • Monroe Connector between the U.S. 74 bypass in Union County and Interstate 485;
  • Gaston East-West Connector, which would connect Interstate 85 west of Gastonia and I-485 in Mecklenburg County;
  • Triangle Parkway, which would go through Research Parkway; and
  • A proposed bridge connecting mainland Currituck County to the northern Outer Banks.

This wasn’t the only tolling initiative that Jenkins pursued during the session. A separate effort would have diverted money from the state’s Highway Trust Fund for toll projects.

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

Supporters said 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 have shifted $25 million from the state’s general fund to loop funding in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The revenue was intended to prevent a squeeze on loop money.

The bill – SB1819 – however, remained in the Senate Transportation Committee when the session ended, effectively killing it for the year.

Another toll road plan would have included 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 ultimately 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 AP 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 said 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 recently told The AP.

The border-toll bill – SB1578 – also remained in the Senate Transportation Committee when the session wrapped up.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor