At a string of public hearings that starts Tuesday in Lumberton, state highway engineers will ask Eastern North Carolina residents what they think about a novel and ambitious proposal to give Interstate 95 a long-needed overhaul - and to cover the $4.4 billion cost by collecting tolls electronically from its drivers.
East Coast truckers, southbound New Yorkers and local folks have complained for years that I-95 is too narrow, its interchanges too cramped, and many of its overpasses too low to handle traffic smoothly and safely. The interstate carries fewer cars and trucks than others in North Carolina, but more people die in crashes on I-95 than on any other road in the state.
There is general agreement on what is needed for the worn-out, four-lane interstate. Now we'll find out whether the people who use it can agree on how to pay the staggering cost.
DOT officials say their approach would focus a heavy share of the toll burden on long-distance truckers, out-of-state drivers and others who travel more than a few miles on I-95.
They're sketching out a system that would make it possible in some locations for residents to continue making short, local trips on I-95 - traveling as far as 10 miles or more in some spots without paying tolls.
"We don't want them to stop using I-95 - there will still be free local trips," said Kristine O'Connor, a DOT project development engineer who is overseeing the plans.
Some repairs have been made, and more work is scheduled. But DOT has committed only $455 million in tax dollars for I-95 construction - only 10 percent of what's needed to fix everything.
In a thick environmental assessment published in January, DOT proposed to start first on the busiest 60 miles, from I-40 at Benson to N.C. 211 at Lumberton. This part of I-95 would be widened from four to eight lanes by 2019. Then the remaining 122 miles between the South Carolina and Virginia borders would grow from four to six lanes by 2032.
Other plans include new pavement and major redesigns for 17 interchanges.
North Carolina hopes to win permission this spring from the Federal Highway Administration to pay for the work on I-95 by collecting tolls from drivers who use it. Tolling and construction details are expected to change before the final plan is approved later this year. If federal permission for toll collection is denied, DOT planners would have to scrap their proposal.
Some political leaders have suggested collecting tolls only at the state's borders. But DOT officials say that approach wouldn't work and wouldn't raise enough money.
At the public hearings, DOT will sketch out a toll-collection scheme that would employ the all-electronic, cash-free technology that recently went into operation on the Triangle Expressway toll road in Research Triangle Park.
Car and truck owners who buy N.C. Quick Pass transponders would pay the lowest toll rate. E-ZPass and Sun Pass transponders used on toll roads in other states also would work on I-95.
For vehicles without transponders, cameras would record the license numbers, and the owners would be billed by mail, at a higher toll rate.
Current plans call for toll collection to start on the full 182 miles of I-95 in 2019 - after the eight-lane widening is finished on 60 miles and before the six-lane widening starts on the remaining 122 miles.
Drivers on the eight-lane section would pay a rate expected in 2019 to be around 19.2 cents a mile. Drivers on the rest of I-95, with improvements scheduled farther in the future, would pay about 6.4 cents a mile.
That means a trip from North Carolina to Virginia would cost $19.20 for a two-axle vehicle. Larger trucks would pay higher rates.
I-95 has on- and off-ramps at 56 interchanges from border to border, but DOT's plan does not attempt to collect tolls at every exit.
In place of old-fashioned cash toll booths, the charges would be captured with overhead electronic sensors and cameras placed about 20 miles apart, in nine locations along I-95.
The same technology would be installed at on- and off-ramps for the interchanges closest to the main I-95 toll sensors - to discourage drivers from trying to skip around the toll collection.
"It's not going to prevent diversion for everybody, because there are still ways you can get off onto alternate routes," O'Connor said. "But what it does is encourage people to stay on I-95."