CTB Talks Tolls on Interstate 95

by James A. Bacon

The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) is normally a pretty docile bunch, rubber stamping everything the McDonnell administration submits to it. So, when members pushed back Wednesday on a proposal to start tolling Interstate 95, it’s an indication that the Virginia Department of Transportation has a long slog ahead.

“I’ve been getting calls from trucking companies. They’d rather have a diesel fuel tax than a toll,” said Mark Peake, representative of the Lynchburg District — which doesn’t even touch I-95. “Some peoples’ ox is going to get gored,” added W. Sheppard Miller, urban at-large from Norfolk. Residents in places like Emporia who use the interstate for local traffic will be unfairly penalized, he said.

If there’s one thing every member of the CTB seems to agree on, it’s that the transportation system needs more money. Maintenance is consuming an ever-bigger slice of state revenues, and it’s only a matter of a few years before Virginia lacks sufficient tax revenues to provide the local match for federal funds. The General Assembly refuses to raise the gasoline tax, which leaves tolls as the only revenue source. But tolls, as CTB board members made cleare, pose ticklish problems as well.

As interstate highways age, their maintenance needs increase. According to a presentation by Michael Estes in the Virginia Highway Commissioner’s office, 80% of I-95’s bridges are 40 years or older and 72% of mainline pavement is in need of maintenance. By 2035, two-thirds of the highway will meet or exceed capacity and projected travel time will increase 40%. The highway is projected to receive $2.5 billion in funding over 25 years, leaving a gap of $9.6 billion.

Virginia and North Carolina have received permission from the Federal Highway Administration to toll I-95, and the two states are keeping each other informed about their tolling strategies, including the placement of booths. Under FHWA rules, toll revenues cannot be diverted to other projects but must be used “to make pavement, structural, operational, capacity and safety improvements throughout the corridor.

VDOT has analyzed several tolling alternatives. Under one scenario, the state would put up gantries at two locations, one north of Richmond and one south of Petersburg. Tolls would have to reach $0.53 per mile to close the funding gap. The problem is that the tolls would divert significant traffic to parallel roads, like U.S. 1. For now, said Estes, VDOT is requesting approval to initiate tolling at a rate of $0.02 per mile. Tolls potentially could raise $35 million yearly to $160 million yearly, depending upon the scenario.

Allen Louderback, a rural, at-large representative, also voiced skepticism, raising the specter of unintended consequences. How many trucks would shift to Interstate 81, he asked. The state may not raise as much money as it thinks it will.

Virginia’s trucking industry opposes tolls, said Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia trucking association. First, he said, tolls divert traffic. The problem was so bad in Ohio that the state had to pull tolls off the Ohio Turnpike. Second, tolls are inefficient: 38% of the revenue in the first six years would go to building and operating the system, and 11% after that. Third, interstate tolls would hurt Virginia’s reputation as a good place to do business. Truckers would prefer to hike the motor fuels tax.

But Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton defended tolls, at least in the abstract. Revenues from the motor fuels tax continues are losing ground as vehicles get better gas mileage. The federal government is in no position to give any more money. Tolls are about all that’s left. “Every state is looking at user fees. It’s a national phenomenon.”

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  1. A 2 cents per mile toll is equal to a 50 cent per gallon gas tax.

    Are these people out of their mind?

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Of course the CTB is balking – tolls and/or “user pays” is ONLY for NoVa and Tidewater. Everywhere else, everyone drives for free.

    1. Everyone drives for free… except for the three toll roads in the Richmond region.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I can add Richmond to the very short list of places in Virginia where people pay to drive. However, tolls have been defeated on Rt 81 and appear to now be defeated on Rt 95.

        Is this the “new normal” – urban / suburban drivers pay while rural / small town and city drivers drive for free?

        The Charlottesville By-pass never had a toll discussion.

        Your dreams of users pay is doomed until all users pay.

  3. The gas tax is a slush fund. One of the byproducts of the HOT Lanes is profit-sharing. Once maintenance, debt service, and reasonable shareowner dividends are paid, any excess profits are shared with VDOT and can be spent only in Northern Virginia.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Once again, Jim Bacon’s admirable idea of “user pays” is destroyed by The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

      Instead of user pays, I guess we have:

      1. Some users (HOT lanes drivers) pay an utter fortune.
      2. Extra money from the HOT lane extortion is sent to Richmond / VDOT.
      3. Richmond / VDOT takes their skim.
      4. What’s left after the skim is sent to the unelected, unaccountable and unrepresentative CTB.
      5. The CTB allocates the post-skim funds based on whatever Ouija-board logic it is using at the time.

  4. larryg Avatar

    TMT has it right – at the top – anything beyond maintenance and operation money from the gas tax goes into a defacto slush fund for the clown-show-appointed developer-oriented CTB to allocate in ways that transform the word “need” into a perversion.

    Next, you have about 80% of drivers who don’t care that the gas tax is not inflation-indexed and refuse to support an increase.

    Then you’ve got people who want to solo-commute at rush hour on urban roads where additional capacity right of way can cost hundreds of millions of dollars per mile.

    everyone is user-pays for maintenance and operations no matter where you live but from now on if WHERE you live and drive wants a new road because, for instance, a LOT of you want to solo-drive at high-demand times, then you’re going to pay tolls – and should IMHO.

  5. The corruption is so strong that state law prohibits the reporting of the amount of gas tax collected in a county or city.
    “Senator X, you support increasing the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon. Tell me how much gas tax will [local jurisdiction] pay annually if the tax were raised? ”
    “Sorry, I cannot answer that question. State law doesn’t allow the reporting of gas tax collections by local jurisdiction. You’ll just have to trust the Commonwealth Transportation Board to do the right thing by [local jurisdiction].” And besides all of the real estate speculators and developers support this tax increase. Why would they do that if [local jurisdiction] would not be treated fairly?”

  6. larryg Avatar

    TMT is that actually in the Code of Va? Wow…. it’s one thing to LACK transparency (on purpose) but it’s quite another to legally PROHIBIT transparency.

    You have to ask yourself. In the early days, the “gentry” would handle the affairs of the state since the common man was incapable. In Harry Byrd’s time, that basic idea was continued and maintained but now here we are in the 21st Century and you can bet that every single elected General Assembly rep knows about the lack of transparency of transportation funding and ….. abides it…. no a one as far as I know has offered a bill to remedy it though there are no shortage of bills to do things like give taxes dollars to crematoriums for space ventures.

    this lack of transparency on gas taxes contributes to a staunch refusal by most localities to confront the simple fact that their development plans often far exceed their fiscal ability to provide the infrastructure needed to serve it. That, in turn, has led to the insanely ignorant idea that roads “are a state responsibility” as if no matter how much gas tax a locality actually generates to pay for roads in their area is irrelevant. How’s that for Fiscal ignorance?

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