SELMA — Florida trucker Ed Malone fills his diesel fuel tanks in South Carolina or Virginia on the drive up Interstate 95, to avoid paying North Carolina's higher fuel tax. He dodges high-dollar tolls in Maryland and New Jersey by taking the long way to New York - through Pennsylvania.
Malone likes a new $4.4 billion proposal to overhaul I-95 and widen all 182 miles through Eastern North Carolina. But when he heard last week that the state Department of Transportation wants to pay for the work by collecting tolls from I-95 drivers, he shook his head.
"Oh boy," said Malone, 43. He parked a truckload of strawberries at a rest area in Johnston County and stepped down to stretch his legs.
"I avoid all the tolls going up the East Coast," Malone said. "I go 50 miles out of my way, and I spend about $30 extra on fuel. But I save, like, 90-something dollars."
Out of 53,000 cars and trucks using I-95 on an average day, DOT figures that as many as one of every five zoom through North Carolina without ever stopping here. They don't buy gas or diesel fuel, so they don't pay the 38.9 cents tax North Carolina collects on every gallon to take care of I-95 and other highway needs.
Now, DOT wants long-distance truckers and out-of-state drivers to pay their share of the cost to upgrade every inch of I-95 between the South Carolina and Virginia borders.
"You have the people coming from New York to Florida that will pay for the road, and the trucks," said Kristine O'Connor, a DOT project engineer who is overseeing the plans. "So these people who may not be buying gas in North Carolina - because their cars are so efficient they don't have to stop - will be paying for the road they're riding on."
In fact, with the electronic toll collection network DOT has proposed, these drivers could end up paying even more than their share.
Aiming for 2019 start
The system is designed to discourage travelers from hopping on and off the interstate to avoid tolls on the long drive through the state - but it will not prevent the practice altogether. In many cases, North Carolina residents will be allowed to continue making short local trips on I-95 without ever paying tolls.
DOT's proposal depends on winning federal permission this year to start collecting tolls on I-95 in 2019. That's when DOT hopes to finish Phase 1 - expanding I-95 from four to eight lanes on the busy 50 miles south from I-40 to St. Pauls and six lanes on another 11 miles - and to start the rest of the work.
Toll rates have not been established, but a recent DOT report suggests it might start out charging 19.2 cents a mile for cars on the section to be widened by 2019, and a much lower rate - 6.4 cents - on sections to be improved later.
That would work out to a toll of $19.20 for a complete I-95 car trip from border to border, DOT said.
Big trucks with at least four axles pay higher rates on toll roads, typically three or four times the rate for a two-axle car.
The details in DOT's draft plan could change before toll collection starts, O'Connor said. But here's how the plan is shaping up now:
Overhead toll collection sensors will be installed at nine locations on I-95, about every 20 miles from border to border. The same technology is used now to collect tolls on the Triangle Expressway in Research Triangle Park.
Drivers who carry toll transponders - such as the N.C. Quick Pass, or the E-ZPass used on toll roads in 14 other states - will be charged a 20-mile toll each time they pass beneath the I-95 sensors. For vehicles without transponders, cameras will record license numbers and the owners will be billed by mail, at a higher toll rate.
North Carolina is pursuing agreements with other states for mutual support in collecting toll bills. For now, an out-of-state driver who ignores a toll bill can expect eventually to hear from a collection agency.
The easiest way to avoid tolls would be to exit I-95 just before reaching the overhead sensors, then drive a few miles on nearby U.S. 301, and return to I-95 at the next interchange.
But at the exits closest to each set of overhead sensors, DOT plans to install the same technology. A car taking that last off-ramp from I-95 before the toll sensor will be charged for a 10-mile toll, and a car entering at the next on-ramp also will be charged for 10 miles.
Meanwhile, at other exits - all exits except the ones closest to the I-95 sensors - drivers will be able to get on and off the interstate without having to pay.
That means no tolls for short I-95 trips around Smithfield and Selma, for example - or on I-95 around Dunn, Benson and the I-40 exit.
But if residents in those communities drive much farther in either direction, they'll have to pay.
"You could go from Dunn to I-40 and Raleigh and not be tolled," said Dunn Mayor Oscar N. Harris. "So that is a lot of our driving around here. But if you want to drive to Fayetteville, you would be tolled."
Harris likes the improvements DOT proposes for I-95 near Dunn, which is part of the section to be widened to eight lanes.
Oversize trucks sometimes strike the undersides of low bridges around Dunn with clearances of 15 feet or less. These bridges will be rebuilt to meet the current federal clearance standard, 17.5 feet.
Drivers sometimes have trouble with Exits 72 and 73 at Dunn, because their on- and off-ramps are built too close together. DOT engineers originally proposed to close Exit 72, but Dunn residents persuaded them instead to combine the two in a larger new interchange. A single off-ramp will takedrivers to both exits.
"I think DOT has done a wonderful job of working with the improvements on I-95, to make sure that no community is put in jeopardy by the changes on the road," Harris said.
'Can I get to work ...?'
In Lumberton last week, about 80 people turned out for a public hearing to find out how the construction and toll collection would affect them.
"Where I get on and off when I drive to work, I won't have to pay tolls," said Weldon Floyd, 63, of Proctorville, who works at Robeson Community College.
Jim Tripp welcomed the plans to widen I-95 but was skeptical about electronic toll collection.
"You've got all this rural population out here, and some of these people don't have a checking account or a charge card," said Tripp, 68, of Lumberton. "How are you going to collect tolls from them?"
DOT officials said toll collection would be managed by the N.C. Turnpike Authority. Toll bills can be paid by mail, and state law also requires the agency to accept payments made in person at agency locations convenient to each toll road.
Harvey Godwin of Pembroke operates a staffing service near the N.C. 41 exit at Lumberton. He might lose part of his property when DOT widens the highway, but his daily commute will be toll-free.
"That has concerned a lot of people: Can I get to work without paying a toll?" said Godwin, 57. "To me, paying the toll for anybody, including residents, is worth it. They're going to widen it here to six lanes. If, as they say, the cost to drive to Virginia is less than $20, it's worth that."
But not for everybody. Shaffick Mohammed of Cary, 61, driving south to visit his son in South Carolina, said he would avoid I-95 if the state started collecting tolls. "That is not a good idea because of the economy, and the people hardly working," Mohammed said. "That will be an additional strain on the poor."
Crystal Collins, president of the Raleigh-based N.C. Trucking Association, attended the hearing in Lumberton and told O'Connor that her group opposes the toll proposal.
"We oppose tolls on existing roads," Collins said in an interview. "We're already paying taxes to have the roads we have today maintained. You're paying for it again."
A DOT study estimates that 20 to 25 percent of I-95 drivers will find other roads, to avoid the tolls. But the state figures it still can collect enough money to pay for the construction, if tolls are collected for about 40 years.
The so-called "equity formula" for allocating state and federal road funds across the state makes I-95 the responsibility of the counties that border it. But they don't receive enough money to fix I-95 and meet other needs as well.
If these counties spentevery road dollar they get to repair I-95, O'Connor said, it would take about 60 years to finish the work.
"We're estimating that with tolling it can be done in 20 years," O'Connor said. "And it will free up money that can be used for other projects like the Goldsboro Bypass and the Kinston Bypass."
Collins warned that toll collection on I-95 will force too many drivers to start clogging nearby U.S. 301 for the north-south trip across Eastern North Carolina. "You start looking at where the congestion is going to be," Collins said. "It could shift because of the tolling. And that's going to create a problem there."