SMITHFIELD — The N.C. Department of Transportation says the best way to pay for improvements to Interstate 95 is with tolls.
But opponents remain skeptical, arguing that tolls would place an unfair burden on commuters, business owners and truckers in the I-95 corridor.
The DOT wants to make improvements to the 182-mile span of I-95 from Virginia to South Carolina. The work, including additional lanes along some stretches, would cost an estimated $4.5 billion, and the DOT has floated the idea of tolls to cover the cost.
Last year, amid opposition to tolls by I-95 counties, state lawmakers ordered the DOT to study alternatives. Last October, a consulting firm hired by the DOT began work on that study, and the DOT released the findings during an informational meeting Monday evening at Johnston Community College.
In short, the study concludes that the cost of doing nothing to I-95 is more than paying for improvements with tolls.
“Even if you toll the road over several years, the economic impacts of that are not as significant as they would be if you did nothing,” said Roberto Canales, a DOT project manager.
Under an early DO proposal, a driver would pay $20 to travel all 182 miles of I-95 in North Carolina.
The study estimates that by 2040, the number of vehicles on I-95 will have grown anywhere from 35 to 50 percent. Johnston County could see some of the highest vehicle counts because it is home to the second highest number of businesses on I-95.
The study notes that when traffic increases so do problems, including congestion, crashes and travel time. Therefore, if the state does nothing, companies will find it more expensive to do business in the I-95 corridor, and that could make it harder for counties to keep existing businesses and recruit new ones.
In North Carolina, the state is responsible for most road building and maintenance. Its revenue sources are the 37.5-cent state tax on each gallon of gasoline, the 3-percent tax on vehicle sales, $4 from every driver’s license fee and the $28 vehicle-registration fee.
The DOT has said those sources, at their current level, won’t pay for I-95 improvements. The state proposes to start collecting tolls on I-05 in 2021, according to Paula Dowell, a project manager who led the study.
North Carolina ranks 49th nationally in dollars spent per mile of road.
The cost to business
Ernie Brame is manager of the Kenly 95 Petro, a truck stop off of Exit 106 in Johnston County. He fears tolls will hurt businesses like his.
“If they do this, it will shut down the economy of I-95,” Brame said.
To avoid the tolls, many drivers might take other routes, and that could doom I-95 businesses that rely on truckers and travelers, Brame said.
The study confirms the fear of drivers avoiding I-95, at least early on. It estimates that about 32 percent of people driving in Johnston County would take another road, such as U.S. 301. The area between Wilson and Smithfield would likely experience the most diversion of any section in the state, the study says.
At the same time, the study predicts drivers would divert only in the early years of the improvement project.
Brame is the chairman of the “No Tolls on I-95” coalition, a group with about 5,300 supporters.
The coalition supports House Bill 267, which would prohibit tolls on existing lanes of I-95 and allow them only on new lanes.
Study: Tolls are best
Still, the study maintains that paying for the interstate with “mitigated tolls” would give rise to the greatest economic benefit, both locally and statewide. With mitigated tolls, locals could opt for a pass that would allow them to pay half of what they would otherwise pay.
The study estimates that improvements financed by mitigated tolls would expand the overall size of the economy by about $82.6 billion over four decades and lead to the most job growth.
Another option – a motor-fuels tax – would expand the economy by $77.7 billion and create 16,845 jobs.
The study adds that a 10-year sales tax, with money specifically funneled to the road project, would lead to the least job growth.
Money could also come from the state’s personal income tax, which would create more than 16,000 jobs. Or it could come through a combination of revenue, including the sales tax, highway-use tax and vehicle-registration fees.
The General Assembly has the final say on the subject.