By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — Virginia is encountering resistance to its plans to impose $4-$12 travel tolls on the southern section of Interstate 95.
Critics warn that, if approved, the project will lead to interstate tolls throughout the Old Dominion.
“It’s a first step in the state’s plan, and it will result in tolls all up and down the corridor,” said Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is eyeing installation of toll booths 20 miles north of the North Carolina border in Sussex County. And that’s not going over well with the locals.
The boards of supervisors in Sussex and border county Greensville have passed resolutions in opposition.
“The whole process is backwards. VDOT isn’t going to give the public any time to voice their opinion prior to submitting their final application to the Federal Highway Administration,” said Sussex County board member Eric Fly.
“They clearly know that the public is against the idea and are therefore trying to jam it through,” Fly said.
A 2011 poll by Quinnipiac University found Virginians opposed tolling I-95 by a margin of 52-42 percent. But the survey of 1,459 registered voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, also reported that respondents preferred paying tolls over higher gas taxes, 60-28 percent.
For professional drivers, though, the sentiment is strongly opposed.
“We’re being contacted daily,” said Bennett, whose trucking association has put up an online petition drive in an effort to halt the toll venture.
The state’s drive for tolls is an ironic U-turn, considering that Virginia removed tolls from around the Petersburg area when the bonds for that section of roadway were paid off decades ago.
“As a longtime resident of Petersburg, I can tell you that just the thought of putting toll roads back on 95 brings back all the bad memories of sitting on the interstate going nowhere,” mused driver Carol Richards.
Logjams and accidents prompted Connecticut to remove toll booths from its portion of I-95. But with North Carolina seeking to impose tolls as a way to add lanes along its corridor, Virginia is the logical link to the states of Maryland, New Jersey and points north that use the E-Z Pass electronic toll-collection system.
Michael Estes, a VDOT engineer, said Virginia’s tolls could generate $35 million to $40 million a year for interstate improvements “from Richmond south.”
Transportation experts contend states are being forced to initiate or resurrect tolls in an era of aging roadways and fading gas-tax revenue. As vehicles achieve better fuel economy, taxes collected by the gallon don’t go as far as they used to.
John McClain, deputy director at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said there are proposals to assess motorists based on the miles traveled by their vehicles, or even to fund maintenance of the nation’s entire interstate system through tolls.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has added a percentage sales tax to its gas tax, which accounts for its higher fuel prices. Now, the Tar Heel State is pursuing tolls, as well. As of Tuesday, the average price for a gallon of regular gas was $3.41 in North Carolina versus $3.37 in Virginia, according to gasbuddy.com.
Bennett said his association doesn’t oppose raising fuel taxes, and believes those levies are the fairest way to go. Virginia’s gas tax hasn’t increased since 1986; the state’s tax on diesel fuel went up 1.5 cents five years ago.
Virginia’s current gas tax is 17.5 cents per gallon and 21 cents for diesel.
“We’re willing to pay our share,” Bennett told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, but trucking companies contend the proposed $12 toll on large commercial vehicles would be punitive for small operators and cost large haulers “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
“Trucking already pays 35 percent of the federal and state highway user fees collected for Virginia, but accounts for only 8 percent of total miles traveled in the state. This toll proposal would impose as much as an additional $22.9 million tax increase on the trucking industry,” according to the Virginia Trucking Association.
Bennett said the cost of collecting gas taxes runs “1 percent to 3 percent” of the revenue received. By contrast, he cited figures indicating that during the first six years of a tollway project, almost 40 cents of every toll dollar is used to build and operate the collection system, including salaries.
Martha Meade, a spokeswoman for AAA, said the auto group does not support tolls on existing roads.
“A $4 toll is exorbitant on a road (that drivers) think they already paid for,” she said.
That was among the objections that fueled Arlington County’s recent successful fight against slapping tolls on I-395.
VDOT’s Estes said the southern Virginia project “a modest step forward.” And while he does not rule out the idea that it’s the first step toward more tolls elsewhere, Estes said, “We would have to go through the same approval process” again.