Last Updated: Mar 31st, 2014 - 14:20:42


Local Opposition to I-95 Tolls Grows
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Aug 28, 2012, 11:55

As opposition the state’s proposal to install a tolling facility on Interstate 95 in Sussex County has continued to grow, the Petersburg-based Crater Planning District Commission has agreed to offer their support to the chorus of voices opposing the plan.

“We have agreed to work with the campaign to provide some, hopefully good, technical analysis, ...” said Dennis Morris, Executive Director of Crater Planning District Commission. “We do have the capability to generate a lot of census data by block group or census track along the corridor, so when we talk about impacts upon low and moderate income people, we have numbers.”

One of the major arguments against the installation a toll plaza between mile markers 20 and 24 in Sussex County has been the effect the $4 fees for cars and $12 fees for trucks might have on a region that is already economically depressed and home to a large number of low-income residents.

U.S. Representative Randy Forbes, R-4th, said he has joined Hopewell, Prince George, Petersburg, the Tri-Cities Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Crater Planning District Commission in opposing the plan because of the effect it would have on some residents of his district.

“Love the Governor, think he does a great job, but that doesn’t mean he’s right in every situation,” Forbes said when asked about the toll proposal during a recent visit to Fort Lee. “This one, I told him that I just can’t support him, and we feel that these tolls are the wrong thing to do, especially because they impact certain communities more detrimentally than they do others, and many of these communities they’re impacting are severely economically strapped.”

Morris said the Crater Planning District Commission is currently working to compile data that will help individuals, local governments and businesses support that argument with facts and figures.

“To make our points, we’ll have some hard data to support them,” Morris said. “It’s one thing to say we think this is going to have a major impact. It’s another thing to say this is going to have a major impact on 21,000 citizens who are below the poverty line in these jurisdictions.”

Joe Vinsh, Director of Transportation for the Crater Planning District Commission, has also been working with representatives from the Federal Highways Administration, the agency that will ultimately have to approve the Virginia Department of Transportation’s application to install a toll in Sussex, to make them aware of the region’s concerns.

“The Federal Highways Administration is certainly aware of the concern, and we hope to get to them more information so they can properly evaluate the impacts upon this region,” Morris said.

Vinsh said that the idea of putting a toll in an economically-distressed region where residents use the interstate to travel to work, stores and medical facilities goes against the concept of environmental justice, an aspect of the National Environmental Protection Act which requires transportation plans to do assessments explaining how the costs and benefits of projects are distributed, to avoid placing disproportionate costs on particular populations.

When VDOT approached the Crater Planning District Commission and the Tri-Cities Metropolitan Planning Organization in April to ask what specific impacts should be evaluated as they considered different tolling scenarios, Vinsh said considering whether placing a toll plaza in Sussex would violate that principal was something the local groups emphasized.

“We specifically mentioned environmental justice and the need for a thorough assessment, throughout the corridor. ... We didn’t get a response on that and we brought that out,” he said.

Mike Estes, Director of Strategic Initiatives for VDOT, and project manager for the tolling project, said that his department has considered the effect the toll could have on the economically depressed regions surrounding the I-95 corridor in Southern Virginia and is looking at ways to alleviate potential hardships on those who travel the road as part of their daily lives.

“We’ve always talked about looking at a commuter incentive program, or a frequent user program, something that would benefit the local community and help offset the potential economic impact of tolling in the community,” he said.

Estes said that VDOT has been looking at successful examples of such programs in other states and is considering how to tailor them to the local region. He said VDOT’s intention to consider such a plan will be included in their application to the Federal Highways Administration and that they plan to share the details with the residents of the area during a series of public meetings they hope to have in the fall, after the Federal Highways Administration has reviewed the application and passed judgement on it. VDOT plans to submit the application within the next few weeks.

The tolling project is part of an attempt to generate funds to make needed improvements to I-95, the East Coast’s major transportation artery. The projected cost of the work that will be needed to maintain and improve the road over the next 25 years is $12.1 billion, while 25 year projections for funding only stand at $2.5 billion, leaving a $9.6 billion funding gap that needs to be filled.

A number of arguments have arisen against the current proposal to fill that gap using toll facilities on I-95, especially a toll facility in an area that has a relatively low level of traffic.

“Why would you put a toll booth in one of the poorest regions of Virginia that has the least amount of average daily traffic flowing along 95?” asked Morris. “If you’re doing that because you’ve got billions of dollars worth of need for maintenance along the whole 95, why in the heck would you choose an option that doesn’t generate hardly any dollars?”

Estes acknowledged that traffic flow is relatively modest in Sussex and that some of the other tolling scenarios considered by VDOT might have generated more money looking strictly at the number of vehicles passing through, but said that the department had settled on what they considered to be the approach that would be the best in all respects.

“Our business model going into this has not been about revenue maximization,” he said. “It’s been about taking a modest toll proposal that we can implement and to demonstrate that it can be successfully implemented. It wasn’t just necessarily to locate it at the highest traffic volume locations to generate the most money we could generate. We took a more deliberate approach to that.”

Part of what made the Sussex location attractive was the fact that 45 to 55 percent of the vehicles that pass the proposed toll plaza site continue on to the 100 mile marker, indicating most of the traffic in the Sussex area is long haul traffic. Also, 75 to 80 percent of the traffic in the area is from out of state, Estes said.

Forbes said that even though out of state drivers would make up a significant portion of toll payers, he was concerned about the local residents who use the road frequently.

“They’re going to be bearing that burden every single day, and that’s why we’re fighting hard to make sure we can try to stop it,” he said.

In their resolutions opposing the toll plaza, both Prince George County and Hopewell have expressed concern that the tolls will increase traffic on local roads that are not designed or prepared to receive highway drivers seeking to bypass the tolls by exiting the interstate in favor of local roads.

Estes said that finding ways to make sure people do not exit the interstate to avoid the toll is one of VDOT’s main focuses as they finalize the application they will submit to the federal government.

“Outside of the cities of Hopewell and Petersburg, every other local road in that area is a VDOT operated facility,” he said. “So, we don’t want to address one problem and cause another one for the state.”

He said that the department has calculated the toll rates and chosen the proposed levels because they believe that long haul traffic will be willing to pay those rates for the increased convenience of staying on I-95. They are also looking at the possibility of placing tolling interchanges before and after the main toll collection facility so people exiting and re-entering the interstate would still have to pay the same price.

Another concern raised by local governments is the effect the proposal could have on economic development in the area, adversely affecting existing businesses and discouraging new businesses from locating in an area where they might face new tolls to truck their goods to the south.

“Virginia bills itself as being business friendly, ...” Morris said. “All these distribution facilities are not going to find it too business friendly when they have to pay $12 a truck going down I-95. So it also runs counter to the whole push for economic development in Virginia.”

VDOT argues that the improvements that will be made to I-95 with toll generated revenue will make the areas along the corridor more attractive to businesses.

“On the flip side, one of the things that we hope to have in our application is also the economic benefits that this will bring,” Estes said. “It’s not just about the impact of the paying of the toll, but without the revenue, the improvements that are needed for safety and operational efficiency won’t come to that section of 95.”

Another complaint raised by Prince George, Hopewell and the local MPO is the loss of federal funding for interstate maintenance. The Federal Interstate System Rehabilitation Pilot Program, through which VDOT proposes the toll facilities, says that federal interstate maintenance funds, which currently stand at approximately $50 million a year for I-95, cannot be used on tolled sections of interstate highways.

Local governments are concerned that revenues collected from a toll plaza, over 38 percent of which would go towards construction and maintenance in the first six years and 22 percent in years after, would not compensate for the lost of those funds.

“That is another part of this issue, that this toll facility in Sussex will not generate, in the first six years, will not generate enough monies to make up the difference, to make up that amount you’re going to be taking off,” Morris said.

He also said that there’s no guarantee that revenue raised from a toll in this region will be used to make improvements in this region.

“There’s been no sharing of where those toll monies would go to provide additional maintenance or upgrades on I-95...” Morris said. “We’ve been asking that question and they ... say, ‘well it could go to projects like,’ and they’ll identify something in our region, but there’s no commitment that any of those dollars generated here will stay in this region.”

One local project that Estes identified as a possible use for revenues would be improvements to the I-95/I-85/ Route 460 interchange in Petersburg.

Forbes said he would be more supportive of tolling if the revenue was being used to fund a specific project in a specific location.

“In this case though, we’re charging tolls that are going to hugely impact these areas and that can be used in other parts of the state,” he said. “I just think that’s the wrong direction for us to go.”

Estes said that in future months, area residents can expect to learn more about the project. The Federal Highways Administration still needs to offer their input and VDOT wants to know what that will be before they go to the public.

“As soon as we get a read or an indication from the federal government on our application, we plan to move expeditiously to full public meetings on the concept,” Estes said.

“We want to be realistic in what we’re taking to the public,” he explained.

He added that while the state does not want to implement tolls, it feels there is a need to do so.

In response to an email asking three questions, including why tolling, as opposed to other revenue generating strategies such as raising the gas tax, is being pursued, Governor McDonnell’s office sent a statement addressing the justification.

“Tolls are one of several currently available financing methods available for needed highway construction and maintenance. The administration has worked to pursue multiple strategies including public-private partnerships, sponsorship agreements, tolling, strategic borrowing and more. The governor believes placing a user fee on drivers using I-95 to help pay for its maintenance and capacity improvements makes sound fiscal sense, without raising taxes statewide in a time of economic uncertainty. I-95 is already tolled by the states to our north, and North Carolina is also pursuing tolling on I-95. These tolls represent a targeted, proven method for raising revenue that will be reinvested specifically in this vital East Coast transportation corridor. However, Governor McDonnell understands the impact of potential toll facilities on local communities and will work to limit that impact to the greatest extent possible.”

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