Tolls on I-95 come slightly closer to reality

The Governor’s office has issued a press release touting the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of a study to determine whether the state can erect tolls on interstate 95 at the North Carolina/Virginia border. But there’s still a very long way to go before that first toll booth gets built:

By granting VDOT conditional provisional approval, USDOT is reserving a slot in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. This reservation will allow VDOT to undertake necessary studies. The Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program is a federal demonstration program that provides authority for only three states to toll Interstate facilities. Once the statutory provisions of the program are satisfied, the opportunity for tolling will be available.

“VDOT will work closely with FHWA to complete the steps outline by Administrator Mendez, as well as any necessary environmental documents,” said VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley. “Our goal is to complete these steps as quickly as possible so we can develop and implement a satisfactory toll agreement with the FHWA.”

In other words, it’s highly likely Gov. McDonnell will be long out of office before beach-goers, snowbirds and the occasional Canadian have the chance (and reason) to take his name in vain as they scrounge for the quarters the state will demand before allowing them entry to Virginia.

Tolls on existing roads like I-95 have the advantage of (potentially) generating tidy sums for the collectors. Sure enough, the McDonnell administration believes it can reap “…$250 million over the first five years of the toll program and over $50 million annually thereafter.” Perhaps so. This depends a great deal, though, on people not engaging in shunpiking (for the curious, there’s an entire website devoted to the practice of avoiding tolls).

A greater concern, though, is perception. Applying a toll to a road drivers already perceive as paid for — through gas taxes — makes the tolling authority seem rather grasping, if not downright greedy (Delaware, I’m looking at you). Yes, there can be little question I-95 is in need of maintenance, widening, and more. but why only toll at the NC/VA border? The real cash is on the northern end of the interstate. But that’s logistically difficult and politically poisonous.

Tolls have existed on Virginia’s stretch of I-95 in the past. The former Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike tolled traffic from 1958 to 1992. It raised more than $500 million during that time, and the monies were used, in part, to retire the bonds used to construct the road (which itself was built to alleviate congestion in the Richmond area).

With the possible return of the toll booth, it could be back to the future…give or take three years.