By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG — A proposal to slap tolls on a 179-mile stretch of Interstate 95 ran into stiff opposition at a series of public hearings from Sussex to Fredericksburg.
Meantime, heading in the other direction, new taxing schemes are being floated to fill what Gov. Bob McDonnell calls a $14 billion budget gap in road construction and maintenance.
The Virginia Department of Transportation stresses that its proposal to impose car and truck tolls ranging from $4 to $12 remains just that – a proposal.
“We take public comments very seriously and will use it to further revise the proposal,” VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison told Watchdog.org.
Critics say VDOT should just dump the idea and step aside.
“To say there is overwhelming opposition to this plan would be an understatement,” says Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia Trucking Association.
So far, nearly 6,500 people have signed an electronic petition posted by a group called “Virginia Toll Free 95.”
Casey Werderman, head of the coalition of 15 business associations and 23 localities, believes that VDOT ultimately wants to extend I-95 tolls far beyond rural Southside Virginia.
The agency, in its application pending at the Federal Highway Administration, defines the I-95 toll “facility” as extending 179 miles from the North Carolina border to Massaponax in Spotsylvania County.
“If they really intended to limit this project, they would have stopped it at Petersburg. It’s very clear this is just the first step (northward),” Werderman said.
McDonnell, who launched the toll idea, is now getting more pushback.
“When you get into the business of tolling existing roads, it’s a whole different deal,” says Bob Chase, who heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
“The funds this toll might generate don’t come close to improving the I-95 corridor,” Chase says. Top estimates peg annual revenue at $30 million.
By contrast, Chase said, boosting the gas tax from 17.5 cents to 27.5 cents would yield an additional $500 million a year.
“If you doubled the tax, you could get caught up now.”
Though the Trucking Association supports a hike in the gas tax as the most equitable way to spread the cost, others aren’t sold on the idea.
One alternative percolating in the General Assembly would abolish the gas tax, raise the state sales tax and dedicate the proceeds to road construction and maintenance.
Boosting the sales tax from 5 percent to 5.9 percent would raise about $800 million annually and be “revenue neutral,” said Delegate Dave Albo, R-Springfield.
McDonnell earlier this month said the purchasing power of Virginia’s gas tax has effectively declined 55 percent since 1986.
But Albo cautions that boosting the sales tax “doesn’t solve the problem. It just means we’re not digging a deeper hole.”
Without taking a position on taxes, Werderman says his politically eclectic organization has consensus on one point: “This whole (toll) thing should be brought to the General Assembly.”
“Unelected bureaucracies should not be making decisions like this. Right now, the General Assembly has no authority to deal with (the toll plan). This is a major sticking point for us,” he said.
The Virginia Chamber of Commerce is keeping its options open until the lawmakers convene.
But expressing the frustration of taxpaying motorists, Chamber president and CEO Barry DuVal said, “We want to stop the crossover of funding from new construction into maintenance.”
Scott Drenkard, economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation, said hiking the general sales tax could compromise Virginia’s competitive position versus neighboring states — all of which have higher levies.
Ideally, Drenkard said taxes should be assessed “closest to the people who use the roads.” He applauded the commonwealth’s expanding use of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, which offer drivers the choice of paying for express access or settling for slower, “unpriced” lanes.
HOT lane additions on I-95 north of Fredericksburg are under construction by private contract. HOT lanes on a section of I-495 use flexible “dynamic pricing” to raise or lower tolls according to traffic volume.
“There, you have a market mechanism working,” Drenkard said.
In any event, the Tax Foundation warns that continuing to tap general-fund sources for road work is a dead-end proposition.
In fiscal 2013, the Old Dominion is anticipated to spend $4.1 billion on roads, though the state’s gas tax will raise just $961 million of that.
The shifting mix of taxes and tolls stokes skepticism among the fiscal conservatives at Americans for Prosperity.
Audrey Jackson, who heads AFP in Virginia, notes that neighboring Maryland has long had border-to-border Interstate tolls, as well as higher gas taxes.
“And they still say they don’t have enough money,” Jackson says.
Adam Fried, owner of Atlantic Builders in Fredericksburg, voiced similar misgivings about government inefficiency.
“It takes forever just to get a turn lane in,” Fried told Watchdog. “Timetables are so flexible, they’re seemingly non-existent. Fredericksburg could have had a bypass years ago, but now the area’s all filled in and it’s too late.”
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward