Virginia gets conditional approval to toll I-95

| 9/19/2011

Truckers already pay their fair share in taxes to run Interstate 95 in the state of Virginia, but the state Department of Transportation is one step closer to adding tolls on top of that. The Federal Highway Administration has granted the Virginia DOT conditional approval to convert the heavily traveled interstate into a toll road.

Gov. Bob McDonnell started the ball rolling last year as part of his statewide $4 billion transportation plan, which received legislative approval. That led to the Virginia DOT filing a formal expression of interest with the FHWA.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez announced Virginia’s conditional approval in a letter to VDOT dated Wednesday, Sept. 14. The letter says the state may proceed as part of the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which allows up to three interstates to be converted to toll roads.

OOIDA and truckers are against tolls on existing infrastructure, and I-95 is no exception. OOIDA leadership calls it shortsighted for officials to view I-95 as a cash cow because highway users continue to pay fuel taxes and other fees to travel on it.

“Conditional approval for tolls gets our attention because of the effect tolling will have on truckers’ livelihoods and the Virginia economy,” said Ryan Bowley, director of legislative affairs for OOIDA.

“The officials are looking at it from the perspective of I-95 being an important freight and passenger movement corridor, and they see it as an easy collection,” Bowley said. “But you’re talking about significant cost increases for a trucker moving goods and for a family going on vacation in that state.”

Back in 2003, Virginia received a similar conditional approval to reconstruct I-81 using tolls. The state sat on that plan for years and eventually scrapped it, opting to try for I-95 instead.

“They couldn’t justify it for I-81. It will be interesting to see how they justify it and work through things like public input for what is one of the major commerce corridors on the East Coast,” Bowley said.

Bowley points out that VDOT maintains nearly 50,000 miles of roadways that other states would consider county or local roadways. Tolling I-95 would most likely free up dollars for that general maintenance fund.

“Instead of asking whether tolls are in the best interest of the state, they should be asking if it’s in the state’s best interest to have taxpayers around the state paying for what essentially amount to local roads,” Bowley said.

Conditional approval doesn’t mean final approval, says Bowley, and the state should be providing opportunities for public participation in the process.

“Conditional approval allows them to move to the next step,” he said. “There are a number of steps that have to be taken. In all likelihood they’ll have to go through studies and other processes to get this approval. Just because they have conditional approval doesn’t mean they have final approval.”

Truckers stood tall in opposing a similar plan by Pennsylvania to toll I-80. The FHWA did not grant Pennsylvania approval because PennDOT could not prove that 100 percent of the toll revenue would stay with the highway for reconstruction. Virginia’s application states that 100 percent of I-95 revenue would remain with the roadway.

VDOT is hoping to generate $250 million during the first five years of tolls according to a statement.

A VDOT spokesman previously told the press that only one tolling location would be necessary, and it would be near the North Carolina border to capture revenue from interstate traffic.

North Carolina officials are considering a countermeasure for I-95 tolls on their side of the state line. South Carolina officials have also considered tolls on I-95.

See related stories:
Virginia governor proposes tolls on I-95
North Carolina jumps on I-95 bandwagon