I-95 Toll Proposal Meeting Presents Discount Plans
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Dec 14, 2012, 13:27
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Roger Craft listens to VDOT project manager Mike Estes presentation at Monday night’s public meeting on the proposal to toll I-95 is Sussex.
As Chester Carter pointed at an informational board displayed in the lobby of John Tyler Community College’s student center on Wednesday night, he said he wanted to put a face on the movement opposing tolls on I-95.
“I’m one of the victims in this whole episode,” Carter said, referring to the state’s proposal to close a $10.1 billion funding gap for improvements and maintenance of I-95 by installing a tolling location at mile post 22 in Sussex County.
Cars will be charged $4 dollars, while six axle trucks will be charged $15. In addition to those toll rates on the main line of I-95, VDOT has also proposed “ramp tolls,” for vehicles exiting and entering the interstate, which Carter said would directly affect his business.
“This whole proposal is not logical and fair,” Carter said, pointing at the exit 31 ramp toll in the town of Stony Creek.
“This is my exit,” Carter said.
He said that the toll will discourage people from exiting the highway to use the service station he established in that location 32 years ago.
“Two miles up the road, they’re going to have no toll,” he said. “So they’re going to discriminate, one economic business against the other by putting a $2 toll at my door.”
Frank Jackson, the mayor of Stony Bridge, agreed with Carter’s assessment.
“We need the people to come off of I-95,” he said to VDOT officials during the comment and question and answer session that followed VDOT’s presentation on the proposal. “Our town of Stony Creek depends on the tourists and the people traveling. If you’re going to put tolls there, it’s going to kill us.”
Carter and Jackson were just two of many people who attended the public meeting to voice opposition to the toll proposal, which opponents say will hurt existing businesses located on the corridor, discourage new businesses from locating in the area and further depress what is already one of the poorest areas of the state.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Stickers handed out before the meeting Wednesday described the views of many attendees in no uncertain terms.
Opponents have also charged that the $155 million dollars in revenue VDOT expects to collect from the toll in the first six years after costs for construction and operation of the facility are subtracted from the total funds collected, will not close the funding gap of more than $10 billion dollars, a fact Mike Estes, project manager, acknowledged at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The tolling proposal that we’ve brought today is just a small step in that direction of trying to close that gap...but it’s not the sole answer to that,” he said.
Estes anticipated a number of questions, including why mile post 22 was chosen for the toll.
He said that 50 percent of the traffic in the area travels at least 100 miles and that 70 to 80 percent of the traffic is made up of out of state drivers.
“It’s a smaller percentage of commuter traffic in this area and that is one of the reasons that we had looked at this one toll location,” Estes said.
Many meeting attendees who were part of that smaller percentage of commuter traffic.
“With this toll you’re talking about putting up, it cuts my salary by $2,080 going back and forth to work,” said Louis Wingard. “Where am I going to get that from?”
To help alleviate the financial burden tolls could place on commuters, VDOT is considering a number of discount plans that would cut costs for frequent travelers by 83 percent.
The discount plans, as currently proposed, are based on geographic location and would only be available to residents of Sussex, Greensville, Prince George and Emporia and would not help Wingard, who is a Petersburg resident.
Estes said that one of the main things VDOT was hoping to get out of the public meetings being held this week and next was an idea of which discount plans would work best and how they might need to be changed before VDOT finalizes any plans.
“I think that’s a good point, and I won’t try to sugar coat the numbers,” Estes said, referring to Wingard’s situation. “The discount plans that we’ve brought today would not offset that payment that you’re talking about.”
Meghan Campbell, a Chesterfield resident who works in Emporia proposed a strategy VDOT might use to address the concerns of people such as herself and Wingard who live outside of the geographic region currently included in the discount plans, but who would have to pass through the tolls twice each day. She suggested allowing people who can prove where they live and where they work and who have to pass through the toll as part of their daily commute could be considered in the same plan as residents of the zip codes currently included.
Although many of the projects VDOT would like to tackle with the first six years of revenue collected from the tolls are south of Richmond, including reconstruction of the I-95/I-84/US Rt. 460 Interchange in Petersburg, some people who commented at the meeting said they think they are being asked to pay for improvements to I-95 in other parts of the state.
“We’re going to end up paying for what’s going on in Northern Virginia” Waynenetta Wingard said. “You want to take the toll from the 98 percent of people down here to pay for the 2 percent of people up there and it’s not right.”
The question of raising the gas tax, which has become a rallying cry of toll opponents, was also raised during the meeting.
“Why don’t you raise the gas tax?” asked Chesterfield resident James B. Cook, Jr., a question that prompted applause from the audience.
He said a one cent increase in the Virginia gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the country, would generate $50 million a year in revenue.
Estes said that the General Assembly would have to act to raise the gas tax, which has remained the same since 1986, and that VDOT does not have the authority to do so.
Many commenters continued to state their preference for that option.
One advocate of raising the gas tax is Barry Steinberg, a partner in the Washington D.C. based firm of Kutak and Rock, LLP, who has been engaged by several localities opposing the tolls. Prince George and a number of other localities are contributing funds to pay the legal fees.
During a phone interview before Wednesday’s meeting, Steinberg said that he accepts that Virginia needs money for its roads, but has questions about Virginia’s limited focus in terms of how to collect that money.
“Why are they only looking at toll roads?,” he asked. “Why is that the only issue that they’re focused on here?”
Steinberg said that senior leaders in Virginia have stated that I-95 is the main economic artery of the commonwealth, a fact he does not dispute.
“If it benefits the whole economy of the commonwealth, why are the people in Sussex County carrying the load to fix the artery?” he asked. “If you used the gas tax, you would spread it across the commonwealth.”
One of the problems Steinberg sees with Virginia’s application to participate in a Federal Highway Administration’s pilot program that would permit tolling on existing interstate highways is the state’s definition of “the facility.”
Under the FHWA program, all revenues generated by tolls must be used on the facility that is being tolled. Virginia has defined that facility as the 179 miles of I-95 that run through the commonwealth from North Carolina to Maryland.
“A more reasonable approach would have been to define the facility from Petersburg to the North Carolina border,” Steinberg argued.
He said that approach would ensure that tolls collected from residents of areas near the tolls would not go toward projects in other parts of a state, a fear raised at Wednesday’s meeting.
Steinberg said that he thinks Virginia chose to define the entire length of I-95 in the state as the facility for one of two reasons.
One possibility, he said, is that the state intends to move the money around, using funds collected in Sussex in other parts of the state.
“Or, they intend, after they get the camel’s nose under the tent, they intend to put a lot more toll booths out there.”
He considers the second possibility to be more likely,” he said.
That concern was raised at the meeting by Mike Uzel, a Chesterfield resident.
The FHWA has asked VDOT to complete an environmental assessment for the project under the National Environmental Protection Act before granting approval. Steinberg said if the FHWA approves the project, he will sue the Federal Highway Administration.
He said under NEPA, environment is more than “birds and bunnies.”
“We’re talking about clean air, clean water, noise implications, economic impacts to a community, all of these things,” he said. “It’s a broader definition of environment, not just endangered species and toxic chemicals.”
Steinberg said he is involved in the case already, sending letters and communicating with the FHWA.
“I have met with FHWA and told them point blank, if this goes down the road it’s going down, we’re going to sue you on the NEPA action because the commonwealth is ignoring reasonable alternatives.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Project Manager Mike Estes explained the details of the current proposal to residents at a meeting on Wednesday night, where many people expressed opposition to tolls.
On Wednesday, VDOT said it is moving forward with its typical process followed for road projects, collecting public comment and conducting analysis.
“This is not a done deal as proposed,” Estes said. “We do want to hear feedback.”