Tolling May be Best Option for Constructing a Modern I-95 in North Carolina

Rebuilding and tolling I-95 has encountered resistance from North Carolina politicians. According to the Charlotte News and Observer:

Legislators on both sides of the aisle, and both sides of Interstate 95, are throwing roadblocks in front of a thoroughly unpopular proposal from the state Department of Transportation to finance a $4.4 billion widening project by collecting tolls from I-95 drivers.

State House and Senate members who represent I-95 counties have introduced bills to require an economic study on how the electronic tolling might hurt residents and businesses in Eastern North Carolina, and a traffic study on how U.S. 301 and other alternate routes might be overburdened by cars and trucks trying to dodge the tolls.

And they want to give the legislature the power to veto any I-95 toll plan.

“I’m very concerned about the economic impact along the I-95 corridor of even the discussion of tolling I-95,” said Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican who is one of the chief sponsors of the legislation. Newton said a Nash County site recently was eliminated from consideration by a company planning to build a distribution center with 140 workers, all because of DOT’s toll talk.

Newton and other toll foes say they agree that I-95 needs improvement, but they favor paying for it with the same tax revenues used to widen other roads. DOT proposed tolls after calculating that the I-95 upgrade would require every road dollar allocated to every county along the interstate for the next 60 years.

Newton said North Carolina has begun using tolls to finance new highway construction, but it should not use them to improve existing roads.

“It needs to be done; I-95 needs to be upgraded; it’s overdue in some areas for significant work,” Newton said. “But paying for the upgrades by tolling everybody along I-95 is not the answer.”

Implementing tolls is always controversial. However, NCDOT is undertaking a comprehensive study. First, the agency has convened a large number of groups including the Travel and Tourism Commission, the Chamber, the Trucking Association, Retail Merchants Association, Travel Industry Association, Farm Bureau and a North Carolina State University Economist. Many of these groups including the Trucking Association strongly oppose tolls. NCDOT has issued the request for proposals with a deadline of June 29th.

Second, NCDOT is keeping an open mind. The study will consider tolling, other financial sources, and not improving the highway at all. The agency prepared this document with answers to frequently asked questions.

Tolling is the most efficient way to improve I-95. With gas taxes local residents who never use the highway are paying to upgrade it. Tolling I-95 will allow gas taxes to be spent on other more localized road projects. Many local residents commute between home and work without using I-95.

NCDOT calculated that rebuilding I-95 without tolls would require all of the gas tax dollars in districts four and six (where I-95 is based) for sixty years. And NCDOT would be unable to widen much less maintain all other roads in the two districts. In North Carolina since all roads with the exception of neighborhood streets are state maintained, this would be a major problem. North Carolina awards highway money to its 12 DOT districts proportionally based on population. NCDOT could move money from the Charlotte and Raleigh districts, but then NCDOT would not be able to improve highways in those districts. Additionally, Charlotte and Raleigh politicians would be very unhappy.

The reason that other expressways such as I-85 can be widened with existing funds, particularly the segment between Charlotte and Lexington, is because those NCDOT districts have larger populations. The I-95 segment covers more out-of-state travelers who do not pay gas taxes to North Carolina unless they stop for gas in the state. And since both South Carolina and Virginia have lower gas taxes, there is little incentive for motorists to stop in North Carolina. While North Carolina has a high absolute gas tax, this is partly the result of the state having the largest number of state maintained roads in the country.

State Senator Newton is concerned that the toll will harm low-income residents and force commuters to use alternate routes. The gas tax harms low-income residents far more than tolls. And local residents may receive a discount on the I-95 tolls. There is little evidence that suggests commuters choose alternatives to non-tolled routes. Alternative roads are often slow two-lane facilities with numerous traffic lights, twists, and local congestion. Interstate highways have higher speed limits and are safer and more direct.

There is no evidence that businesses bypass areas because of toll-roads. High-quality infrastructure is very important to businesses. Businesses typically bypass an area because it is too congested or lacks modern, safe infrastructure. I-95 through North Carolina is both congested and old.

North Carolina is not maintaining an existing expressway, it is rebuilding it. Maintaining an existing highway involves repaving and making minor bridge repairs. On the other hand, this project builds a whole new highway and replaces many of the older bridges. This is necessary since parts of I-95 are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Based on traffic engineering guidelines, I-95 should have 6-8 lanes in most North Carolina segments rather than its current 4 lanes. Most other southeastern states including Virginia, Georgia, and Florida have already widened I-95 or have plans to widen the highway over the next 20 years.

When the U.S. chose to build an interstate system 50 years ago, due to political and density issues, congressional leaders chose to build a free highway network funded by a gas tax. At the time tolling required tollbooths that slowed traffic; electronic tolling was just a dream. President Eisenhower wanted tolling but realized he could not push it through Congress. New electronic tolling technology allows North Carolina to build a modern and safe I-95 that handles the traffic demands of today. State lawmakers should strongly consider this opportunity.