RALEIGH — Legislators were of two minds this month on the question of collecting tolls to widen Interstate 95, and they spoke with one voice.
In a 113-0 vote earlier this month, the House of Representatives said it’s 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. (The legislation passed a second, closer House vote on Tuesday and headed to the Senate.)
“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 on the House floor. “They can’t 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, the DOT won’t 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.
They’re called express lanes because they’re faster than the non-toll lanes – with less congestion and sometimes with higher speed limits. That’s 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 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. The DOT wants to spend $4.5 billion to build new interchanges and widen the four-lane interstate for the entire 182 miles between North Carolina’s borders with Virginia and South Carolina.
Earlier this month, the 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, the 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.
There was no indication the study 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, doesn’t that drive another stake through it?”
But he was fine with the prospect of optional toll lanes for I-95. “I don’t have an issue with that,” Taylor said. “If people want to use them, let them pay the tolls.”
Brame agreed. “I don’t 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, 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 wasn’t 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, DOT’s 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 the 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.
“We’ve got to find another strategy to support the reconstruction,” Trogdon said. “If tolls do not become the one we can support, we’ve got to find another one. And I think we can do that over the next 12 months.”