by James A. Bacon
Congressman Randy Forbes, R-4th, whose district runs from Chesterfield to Chesapeake, has asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to scrap his proposal to place tolls on Interstate 95 near Emporia. The tolls will “disproportionately burden” residents of a rural region already suffering major economic challenges, he wrote in a letter to the governor.
Forbes’ high-profile intervention bolsters efforts of Virginia Trucking Association, national trucking organizations and local governments affected by the tolls to mobilize opposition to the project. Under a plan recommended by the Virginia Department of Transportation, passenger vehicles would pay $4 and trucks $12 at the main tolling station and smaller sums at on- and off-ramps. The tolling would raise an estimated $35 million to $40 million yearly for improvements in the I-95 corridor.
The congressman’s critique of the tolls is spot on… yet unsatisfying. As he concedes in his letter, “I understand the financial challenges facing the Commonwealth in meeting its transportation needs are great.” Yet nowhere does he propose an alternative solution. His answer is to just say, “No, not here.”
That said, Forbes does have a point. If you live in Emporia, Greensville County or Sussex County and use the Interstate for local traffic, the tolls will pose a disproportionate hardship, made all the more onerous by the fact that per capita income in Emporia is 30% lower than the statewide average. Moreover, as Forbes rightly observes, the tolls will discourage economic development in the “economically challenged” communities.
Politically, here is the nub of the problem: People go ballistic whenever you try to put tolls on roads that they used to use for free. Just ask the residents of Hampton Roads who vociferously oppose the tolls on the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. At least those tolls are paying for a major upgrade that will address traffic congestion there. The residents of Emporia and environs won’t even get that consolation. There is no local congestion, and the tolls will pay for improvements up and down the corridor.
Conversely, no one is up in arms over a the proposed building of a new Interstate-quality highway between Petersburg and Suffolk, the U.S. 460 Connector, because local residents would be able to continue using the existing highway for free. Nothing is being taken away from them. (The estimated $1.8 billion cost and economic justification for the project are an entirely different matter.)
Forbes is right to say the tolls would create a major injustice. A toll discounting scheme for local traffic, under consideration by the McDonnell administration, would do nothing to change that fact.
On the other hand, McDonnell is quite correct when he says that the state is running out of money for new construction projects. He is borrowing up to the limits of the state’s AAA-rated borrowing capacity, and he’s trying to leverage public investment with private dollars through public-private partnerships, but there still aren’t enough dollars to go around. I presume that Forbes is not willing to go out on a limb and demand an increase to the motor fuels tax. If Virginians don’t want to watch their roads, highways and bridges systematically degrade, what alternatives does he propose?
That’s the root problem of Virgina’s intractable transportation-funding issue: Everybody wants more spending on roads, highways and rail, but they want someone else to pay. Virginia needs to return to a user-pays system in which the users and beneficiaries of transportation projects (which include landowners whose property values increase) are the ones who should pay for the improvements. If the beneficiaries of a project can’t be persuaded to pony up the funds through tolls, proffers or special tax districts, the project probably cannot be economically justified.