RALEIGH — Legislators were of two minds this week on the question of collecting tolls to widen Interstate 95, and they spoke with one voice.
The House of Representatives said in a 113-0 vote that its OK for the state Department of Transportation to add new lanes to interstate highways and make drivers pay tolls to use them but only if drivers also have the option to stay in the old lanes, toll-free.
If they decide they want to toll any lanes on interstates that exist in North Carolina, they can only do that if they build new lanes, Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican who sponsored the proposal, said Thursday on the House floor. They cant build a toll lane unless they keep the same number of non-toll lanes that were in existence before.
If the Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory agree, as expected, DOT wont be able to rely on tolls to finance big freeway repair jobs. But the state will be able to join Florida and a few other states in adding new toll lanes to old, clogged interstates.
Theyre called express lanes because theyre faster than the non-toll lanes with less congestion and sometimes with higher speed limits. Thats why some commuters pay for the privilege.
Raleigh planners have floated the idea of toll financing to pay for additional lanes that will be needed in the next 20 years on the northern 540 Outer Loop. A different approach is in the works now for I-77 between Charlotte and Mooresville, where a private contractor will build express lanes just for carpoolers and toll-payers.
Collins bill and the unanimous House vote were sparked by an unpopular DOT proposal to make all I-95 drivers pay tolls to finance a long-sought widening and upgrade project. DOT wants to spend $4.5 billion to build new interchanges and widen the four-lane interstate for the entire 182 miles between North Carolinas borders with Virginia and South Carolina.
This week DOT released a new economic impact study, ordered by the legislature, reaffirming tolls as the only reliable source of money to cover the project cost. Without tolls, DOT expects to have only $455 million available for I-95 over the next decade.
Burden and benefit
The eight Eastern North Carolina counties along I-95 would bear most of the toll burden, and they also would enjoy most of the economic benefits from I-95 improvements, said the study from Cambridge Systematics, an Atlanta-based consultant. The report was the subject of DOT community meetings this week in Smithfield and Wilson, and it will be aired at sessions Monday in Lumberton and Tuesday in Weldon.
There was no indication that the report would blunt the sharp resistance to tolls from citizens, truckers, businesses and politicians up and down I-95.
No matter how you look at it, I-95 has gotten the short end of the shaft, said Ernie Brame, manager of the Petro truck stop at Kenly and chairman of the ad hoc No Tolls I-95 Coalition. My company has built its business based on the concept of a free and unencumbered interstate.
Hope Mills trucking executive Doug Taylor said the proposed tolls would hit his industry hard. He figures that just three major businesses near Fayetteville Smithfield Foods and Wal-Mart distribution centers, and his own Taylor Express Inc. put a thousand trucks onto I-95 every day. Side roads will become clogged with truckers looking for toll-free alternatives, he said.
The 95 corridor, and the land close to it, is a good incentive for recruiting industry, Taylor said. If we go tolling, doesnt that drive another stake through it?
But he was fine with the prospect of optional toll lanes for I-95.
I dont have an issue with that, Taylor said. If people want to use them, let them pay the tolls.
I dont have as much heartburn with that, he said.
Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said the legislation to limit interstate tolls would provide fairness and economic protection for low-income residents who depend on I-95.
Why should people that already paid for I-95 through the gas tax be paying again? Floyd said. This bill will help the poorest section of our state.
Higher speed limit
The express lanes would be separated from the rest of the interstate, not like a standard inner lane where drivers weave in and out easily. DOT engineers are considering a 75-mph speed limit expected to be authorized as the states top speed once the House endorses a Senate proposal while drivers in the toll-free lanes would be limited to 65 mph.
There might be a 10-mph advantage in paying the toll, or something like that, if you wanted to fly through our state, Collins said. People in my area can (still) go up and down I-95 without paying a toll.
Floyd said he figured that tolls collected in the express lanes eventually would generate enough money to pay for the whole I-95 project rebuilding the old lanes along with the new ones.
But a senior DOT official said that wasnt likely.
It would fund not quite half the total cost, maybe $1.6 billion to $2 billion of the $4.5 billion, said Jim Trogdon, DOTs chief operating officer.
Trogdon said the unanimous House vote represented a strong consensus that tolling is a good option to help North Carolina add lanes to I-95 and other interstate highways.
He said DOT will work with business, community and government leaders along I-95 to find ways to cover the rest of the cost to upgrade the interstate.
Weve got to find another strategy to support the reconstruction, Trogdon said. If tolls do not become the one we can support, weve got to find another one. And I think we can do that over the next 12 months.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/