Interstate 95 fees are a tolling issue
By Andrew Barksdale
A decision on whether North Carolina will seek federal permission to convert Interstate 95 into a toll road is expected by the end of the year, a state highway official says.
The legislature, in adopting a budget last week, authorized the state highway department to petition the Federal Highway Administration to place toll booths on I-95. It’s the next step in a controversial idea that lawmakers have considered for years. Toll revenue would be used to widen 182 miles of the highway.
State Sen. Larry Shaw, a long-time advocate for converting the interstate into a toll road, said the legislation is a "major policy change." He is a Democrat from Fayetteville.
He likes the state’s chances of winning federal approval for toll booths, he said, because the interstate through North Carolina is dangerously crowded and outdated in design.
"Between New York and Florida, this is the bottleneck," he said.
A 2003 state feasibility study found that collecting tolls on I-95 would raise 81 percent of the $3 billion that would be needed to widen the highway to eight lanes through 2030. According to one scenario in the study, drivers would pay $18 to travel through North Carolina.
The state Board of Transportation adopted last fall a long-term plan that identified a $14 billion gap between transportation needs and funding over the next 11 years.
This spring, Lyndo Tippett, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and a Fayetteville resident, convened a group called N.C. Thinking Ahead to study ways to help close that gap. Options being considered include collecting tolls and issuing state bonds.
Tippett said Wednesday he would consult with Gov. Mike Easley and wait until N.C. Thinking Ahead has finished its work by the end of the year before deciding if his department would seek federal approval for converting I-95 into a toll road.
Tippett would not say whether he endorses tolls on I-95.
"I think the project has to be done, obviously," he said. "I view that, at the moment, as an option, but not necessarily the preferred alternative."
Easley’s press secretary, Sherri Johnson, said the governor wants the authority to use toll booths on I-95, but that doesn’t mean the state will actually use them.
Edgardo Benitez said he wouldn’t mind the change. He lives in Fayetteville and drives a flat-bed tractor-trailer for a company that pays the tolls. That’s not the case for independent drivers who pay their own expenses.
"For some of us, it might be bad," he said. "If it’s going to help the state and help the road, it would be good."
Rick Oglesby, another Fayetteville resident who stopped at the I-95 rest stop in Cumberland County on Wednesday, opposes toll booths.
"Our taxes are high as it is, and it’s another way to tax us," he said.
He said the state should manage its money better.
"They would just fritter it away," he said. "I don’t think a lack of money is the issue. Lack of management is the problem."
Oglesby is not alone. AAA Carolinas, which has 1.5 million members, opposes toll roads.
"I-95 has already been paid for by the taxpayers, and it’s the responsibility of the state to maintain the road," spokeswoman Sarah Davis said.
One reason the state has problems funding road projects, Davis said, is the legislature and Easley have raided the Highway Trust Fund to help balance the state budget the past few years.
Tolls aren’t popular with residents, according to researchers at the University of Texas in Austin who polled 2,111 people last year. Half opposed toll roads to pay for new highways; 71 percent opposed tolls to upgrade existing highways. And 75 percent said the tolls should be reduced after the construction is paid for. The survey’s results were presented at this year’s annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
Some motorist support
Other motorists, such as Betty Moore-Brown, say toll roads are worth the costs. The Florence, S.C., resident passed through Fayetteville on Wednesday for a business trip. She said the toll roads she used in southern Florida in the 1980s were safer, less congested, better patrolled and had higher speed limits.
"The toll roads make life much easier and much more efficient," she said.
State Sen. Tony Rand, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said state officials should have authority for toll booths as they consider funding options. Rand is the Senate majority leader.
"I don’t know where else we would get the money right now," he said. "It’s a major north-south artery for the United States, and it wouldn’t bother me to let some of those long-distance trucks and traffic help with the costs."
Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3565.
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