Friday, June 15, 2012

The Tolling of Interstate 95

In my role as a Chesterfield Planning Commission member I was appointed, in January of this year, to the Richmond Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (or RAMPO). RAMPO exists to allocate federal highway money to specific projects in the Richmond area.

To do that, we need to know what highway projects are being funded from other sources so we don't duplicate efforts and stuff like that. Yesterday, we got an update on the tolling of I-95 proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell back at the start of his term. VDOT is moving forward on that idea. Their proposal is a single toll station in Sussex County north of Emporia collecting from traffic travelling in both directions. The toll would be $4.00 each way ($12 for 18 wheelers). To reduce avoidance tactics,  those leaving I-95 one or two exits before the toll station in each direction would pay $2.00 and those entering I-95 one or two on-ramps after the toll station would also pay $2.00. Thus, through travelers would, in theory, still pay $4 (or drive on local roads for even more miles). This plan is expected to generate $40 million per year.

There is a pot of federal money for maintenance of Interstate highways. Virginia gets money from that pot but if a toll is put on I-95, none of that Federal Interstate maintenance money can be spent on I-95. We will still get all those dollars but they will have to be spent only on the other Interstate highways in Virginia. So it appears as though the effect of tolling I-95 will decrease the amount of maintenance done on I-95 by $10 million and increase the maintenance on other Virginia Interstates by $50 million. That wouldn't be a bad deal except I-95 needs  more maintenance, not less.

But, there's an out according to the VDOT person making the presentation. Other federal highway money (he used bridge replacement as an example) isn't restricted to a specific set of highways but is often restricted in other ways as to how it can be spent. Another Interstate's maintenance activities could get a chunk of this $50 million being taken away from I-95 (say, $10 million used to replace a bridge) and transfer over to I-95 a similar amount (say, $10 million of bridge replacement money).

This is all well and good as long as I-95 needs more bridge replacement money than is currently planned to be spent on that highway. Well then, the VDOT guy would say, transfer safety money instead or some other specified use money to meet I-95's needs.

All well and good again as long as the restrictions on how these other pots of federal highway money can be spent don't keep enough of those dollars from being used on I-95.

 In short, $50 million per year currently planned for use on other Virginia highways will have to be spent on I-95. If that doesn't happen, the drivers paying tolls on I-95 will be funding maintenance of other Interstates in Virginia.

The VDOT proposal also calls for "open road tolling." That is, drivers will be expected to have transponders in their vehicles like EZ-Pass and to pay their tolls using that technology. As is the case on 895 and the Powhite Parkway, photos will be taken of toll evader's  license plates and they will receive a bill in the mail. Guess for yourself how many out-of-staters will respond favorably to that. (Don't forget, VDOT also wants to add a $1.00 per month fee for having a transponder in your car.)

Finally, I'm not persuaded that tolling I-95 is worth the costs. First, I find the projected toll revenues and operating costs to be optimistic at best. Second, the costs imposed on people in Sussex county to either pay $2 to $4 each way for local trips or to drive out of their way are ignored. Those costs, measured in dollars may be low in the greater scheme of things but they are significant to the people bearing those costs. Just ask Brandermill/Wood Lake residents who pay around $8 per day in tolls just to drive to and from work. (By the way, I don't whether people who live in Brandermill or Woodlake and work in downtown Richmond to have much sympathy for the potential plight of Sussex county commuters but, I expect those Chesterfield residents can guess the reactions of affected Sussex citizens.) Third, the qualitative costs of having additional traffic on US 301, US 1 and other local roads can't be measured in dollars so, even though they exist, those costs are ignored.

Public hearings haven't been scheduled yet but we're promised they will happen some day, real close to the time the application is due to the federal Department of Transportation.

For not much more information on tolling I-95, go to VDOT's Interstate 95 Corridor Improvement Program web page.

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