Smithfield Herald

Express lanes an option for I-95

The state might add express lanes to Interstate 95 and make drivers pay to use them.
The state might add express lanes to Interstate 95 and make drivers pay to use them.

Opposition to tolling Interstate 95 has the state Department of Transportation looking at another way to pay for improvements to the highway – tolled express lanes.

The DOT has already finished a study on the economic impact of tolling all lanes of the interstate from Virginia to South Carolina. Now it’s adding a new section to the study – one that looks at the impact of adding express lanes with tolls, said DOT spokeswoman Jen Garifo. In this scenario, existing lanes would remain toll free.

“Basically we’re just doing an additional study that would add to the economic assessment,” Garifo said, adding that the study should be ready this fall.

The DOT has explored this option before. A study from August 2010 looked at adding two express lanes in each direction, then charging drivers to use them. The department concluded that the revenue from the tolls would not cover the cost of adding the lanes.

This time, the DOT is looking at a much smaller project – one lane express lane in each direction north of the Interstate 40 interchange and two lanes in each direction south of it, said department engineer Roberto Canales. Traffic on the interstate is heavier south of I-40.

“We’re going back at it and looking at it in a more refined way than we did before,” Canales said.

Increases in traffic since 2010 might make the express lanes worth the cost this time around. With more drivers using the highway, more of them might willing to pay to get out of heavier traffic.

“If there’s more congestion due to traffic or crashes … the opportunity might be there,” Canales said.

In May, the N.C. House of Representatives voted unanimously to bar the DOT from tolling existing lanes. If the Senate eventually concurs, tolling new express lanes might be the only option for generating revenue.

Rick Childrey, executive director of the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce, has been against tolling the existing freeway from the beginning. He said he’s open to the idea of express toll lanes, but he and other chamber leaders think even they could hurt local businesses.

“I’ve heard some concern about that, because it might draw people away from the area,” Childrey said. “We’d just have to see (the study).”

Canales said the impact on business could be softened if the DOT decided not to use solid barriers that would keep drivers from moving between the express and regular lanes. That would allow for freer movement, he said, but it would be harder to enforce.

Whatever it decides to do, Childrey said, the DOT should be mindful of the impact tolls could have on the communities along I-95. “An entire economy has been built up around I-95,” he said. “You have thousands of businesses along 95 around North Carolina, and it could certainly be detrimental to them.”

But if the DOT hatches an I-95 plan that won’t harm local businesses, the chamber could support it, Childrey said. “We’re willing to work with anyone as long as it doesn’t have a detrimental effect,” he said.