Smithfield Herald

Road Worrier: Express lanes are a more palatable flavor of toll road

No Tolls I-95 is what he calls his grassroots lobby group, but Ernie Brame says he might be OK with some tolls.

Brame runs a big truck stop on Interstate 95 at Kenly. He has lobbied for many years against North Carolina’s high gas taxes and, more recently, against a state proposal to finance a $4 billion I-95 rebuild by collecting tolls from its drivers.

And he’s had plenty of company. If any business owners and politicians along the 182 miles of I-95 in North Carolina think tolls are terrific, they have kept quiet about it.

But support is growing for a toll-hybrid compromise know as “express lanes.” When I-95 or any expressway were widened, the original number of lanes would remain toll-free. Drivers would pay tolls only if they use the new lanes, which would be faster because they’d be less crowded.

“We’re OK with express lanes as long as you leave the existing lanes for people to travel in,” said Brame, manager of Kenly 95 Petro and chairman of No Tolls I-95. “We understand there is a funding issue in this country, and we want to be a part of the conversation. But we want I-95 to be treated the same as any other interstate.”

That sounds fair. Can it work here?

The state Department of Transportation is giving new consideration to toll express lanes on I-95 and on other expressways. A plan to add toll lanes to I-77 north from Charlotte has inspired strident opposition, and Brame has met folks there who disdain him as some kind of flaming moderate.

Just wait until these same people get wind of a newer proposition being floated at DOT: When Charlotte’s busy Independence Boulevard is widened, an existing bus-carpool lane might become a tolled express lane.

“Users would pay a toll in turn for a more reliable trip,” Andy Lelewski, DOT’s toll road operations director, told N.C. Turnpike Authority board members at a September meeting. “These are very popular in Florida and Texas. The tolls would fluctuate based on congestion.”

The Triangle is blessed now with North Carolina’s only pay-as-you-go road, the Triangle Expressway. State officials would like to get something going in Charlotte before they come back and propose more tolls around here.

But there are whispers around town that our highway planners already have their eye on the Triangle’s next big freeway-widening project. After DOT finishes rebuilding Raleigh’s southern I-40/I-440 Beltline in a few years, without adding lanes, it plans to widen I-40 south from the Beltline to N.C. 42 in Johnston County.

The talk is maybe these added lanes will be toll lanes.

“I personally am a little concerned about that,” said Ed Johnson, director of CAMPO, the Raleigh-area transportation-planning agency.

Johnson sees toll lanes in the Triangle future, for sure. But he thinks they’ll make sense only after funds have been exhausted to widen roads without tolls. And only where the traffic is heavy and there’s no easy way to grow: namely, on I-40 near Research Triangle Park in western Wake County.

I-95 isn’t the only place where the DOT has considered new tolls for an old road. But we might hear more of this idea in the future too.

Robert Poole of the libertarian Reason Foundation got attention in Washington recently with a proposal to have Congress let the states start collecting tolls on the entire 46,000-mile interstate highway system. He calculated that with fairly low toll rates on all interstate drivers – around 3.5 cents a mile for cars and 14 cents for trucks – we could raise enough money to rebuild these aging freeways.

A key to these new ideas is the all-electric toll-collection technology featured on Triangle Expressway. Sensors register toll trips for cars with transponders, and license-plate photos catch the rest.

That has made it easier in other states to build toll lanes without walls and to charge higher toll rates when traffic is slowest – and demand highest. This technology would also support a separate part of Poole’s proposal: Before the state collects the electronic toll, it deducts the gas taxes the driver paid for using that interstate.

Poole thinks variable-toll express lanes are good for crowded urban expressways, where some commuters will pay whatever it costs to get home faster.

But express lanes probably won’t work in a plan to finance the widening and reconstruction of a rural road such as I-95, he said.

“I find that idea troubling,” Poole said from his Los Angeles office. “If you only charge tolls on new lanes in order to pay for reconstruction of the entire interstate, you’ve got to charge sky-high tolls that will not attract enough traffic. So it becomes self-defeating.”