Democrats, Republicans oppose I-95 toll project

Democrats, Republicans oppose I-95 project

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 30, 2012 

— Legislators on both sides of the aisle, and both sides of Interstate 95, are throwing roadblocks in front of a thoroughly unpopular proposal from the state Department of Transportation to finance a $4.4 billion widening project by collecting tolls from I-95 drivers.

State House and Senate members who represent I-95 counties have introduced bills to require an economic study on how the electronic tolling might hurt residents and businesses in Eastern North Carolina, and a traffic study on how U.S. 301 and other alternate routes might be overburdened by cars and trucks trying to dodge the tolls.

And they want to give the legislature the power to veto any I-95 toll plan.

“I’m very concerned about the economic impact along the I-95 corridor of even the discussion of tolling I-95,” said Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican who is one of the chief sponsors of the legislation. Newton said a Nash County site recently was eliminated from consideration by a company planning to build a distribution center with 140 workers, all because of DOT’s toll talk.

“And we have all kinds of major manufacturers located along the 95 corridor now – Firestone, Goodyear, four pharmaceutical plants in Wilson County alone. These facilities are not going to look for expansion on 95 where they can be tolled, when they can relocate or expand on I-85 or somewhere else,” Newton said.

Federal law bars toll collection on most existing highways, but North Carolina is among three states that have won preliminary approval from the Federal Highway Administration for tolls to finance major improvements for aging interstates.

Newton and other toll foes say they agree that I-95 needs improvement, but they favor paying for it with the same tax revenues used to widen other roads. DOT proposed tolls after calculating that the I-95 upgrade would require every road dollar allocated to every county along the interstate for the next 60 years.

DOT wants to widen the four-lane I-95 to eight lanes along its busiest section south of the I-40 exchange, and to make the rest of I-95 six lanes wide. Bridges and interchanges would be upgraded along the entire 182 miles of I-95 between Virginia and South Carolina.

To pay for it, DOT would set up electronic toll sensors every 20 miles on I-95. That would allow local drivers to make some short trips without paying tolls, while longer-distance and out-of-state drivers would pay as many as nine times as they drive through the state.

Congressional representatives from North Carolina have opposed the proposal with their own legislation in Washington. A bill by Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers to block federal approval of the I-95 toll plan has bipartisan backing, with cosponsors including Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Larry Kissell, and Republican Reps. Walter B. Jones Jr., Howard Coble and Patrick McHenry.

State legislators from both parties also have signed onto the proposals to delay DOT now with more studies, and to give legislators authority to kill the project later. The bill would appropriate $300,000 for the economic and traffic studies.

DOT is moving ahead, meanwhile, with its own study. Trucking interests, economic developers and other toll critics are among the members of a new advisory board that will oversee an economic study for DOT. Greer Beaty, a DOT spokeswoman, said the study is to be finished by March.

“It appears to me that everybody is trying to find answers to the same questions,” Beaty said.

Gus Tulloss of Rocky Mount, a DOT board member whose Division 4 includes four I-95 counties, said he has not heard of any support for the toll proposal.

“Everybody is concerned about it,” Tulloss said. “Nobody wants it tolled. But how in the world are you going to get it fixed if you don’t?”

Newton said North Carolina has begun using tolls to finance new highway construction, but it should not use them to improve existing roads.

“It needs to be done; I-95 needs to be upgraded; it’s overdue in some areas for significant work,” Newton said. “But paying for the upgrades by tolling everybody along I-95 is not the answer.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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