Both candidates for governor of North Carolina say they do not support tolls as the best means of funding construction or maintenance of the state’s highway system, including on Interstate 95.
Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton told The Robesonian last week that they oppose the findings of a state-commissioned study — the I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study — stating that tolls are the most feasible way to pay for $4.4 billion in improvements and the widening of North Carolina’s 182 miles of I-95. But neither candidate offered any specific suggestion for how the state should fund its 10 percent, or $440 million, of the project.
“I do not support tolling I-95,” McCrory said in a statement. “To once and for all take the politics out of transportation infrastructure funding, I will work as governor to develop a long-term transportation and infrastructure plan for the state. We need to create a long-term strategy, which will send a clear signal to the business community of the state’s future investment in roads, railroads, bridges, ports, airports and other infrastructure.”
Ricky Diaz, McCrory’s press secretary, added that as mayor of Charlotte, McCrory helped create a 25-year transportation plan that is now in its 14th year of implementation.
“It’s working,” Diaz said.
Dalton’s stand on the issue of tolling highways was conveyed through a statement by his press secretary, Ford Porter.
“The lieutenant governor has repeatedly stressed that tolling existing roads should be a very last resort,” Porter said. “Rather, the next governor needs to work with North Carolina’s congressional delegation to ensure that our tax dollars return to the state. Presently we are a donor state for transportation money, sending more to Washington than we receive. The condition of I-95 will require attention, but we must ensure that local residents aren’t adversely impacted.”
Currently, North Carolina has just one road, an expressway that passes around Raleigh to the south, on which motorists must pay tolls. But five other toll projects, including I-95, are now reportedly under Department of Transportation development and likely to meet strong opposition.
Recently an economic analysis of tolling along North Carolina’s stretch of I-95 began. The study, ordered by the state DOT, will take six months to complete and is being conducted by Cambridge Systematics of Atlanta at a cost of about $1.6 million. Federal transportation funds are being used to pay for the study.
According to the DOT, the study will examine the positive and negative effects of adding lanes to the interstate and paying for them with tolls or existing funds. It will also examine the economic effect of not adding the lanes or making any significant improvements outside of what can be funded with existing funding sources.
“This study is in response to the people and businesses of North Carolina and their concerns voiced during the first stage of our study process,” Roberto Canales, a DOT project executive, said in a statement. “We want to make the right decisions for the citizens of North Carolina as we move forward.”
The proposal for tolling I-95 is meeting extensive opposition from residents, businesses, public officials and others along the I-95 corridor who are concerned about the economic impact tolling would have on the region. Tolling, they contend, burdens commercial vehicles and travelers forced to divert to alternate roads to avoid tolls. Tolls would also have a drastic impact on the region’s tourism, opponents say.
According to a statement earlier this year from the Lumberton Tourism Development Authority, tourism is currently one of Robeson County’s largest employers, providing 1,050 jobs. The authority also stated that in 2010 tourism contributed $116.42 million to the Robeson County economy.
As outlined in the I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study, the first phase of improvements to the highway — a 61-mile stretch of the interstate from mile-marker 20 in Robeson County to mile-marker 81 at the U.S. 40/I-95 interchange in Johnston County — are to begin in 2016 and end sometime in 2019. This work would include widening 50 miles from marker 31 to 81 to eight lanes, with the remaining sections being widened to six lanes.
The study proposes two toll sites in Robeson County — at mile-marker 12 near U.S. 74, and between mile-markers 28 and 31 at St. Pauls. Overall there would be nine tolling sites along North Carolina’s section of I-95.
According to the study, if tolls are implemented, a motorist traveling the entire stretch of North Carolina’s section of I-95 would be charged about $20.