By Peter Galuszka

Steamy and sticky in the late-summer humidity, U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk has the milieu of the Deep South with its rusting peanut processing plants, red brick small towns and the straight-as-an-arrow mainline of the Norfolk Southern slicing through occasional roads with warning lights at the sides.

These days, curious little roadside signs are popping up. They urge “No Tolls on I-95” not too far from billboards for Wakefield’s landmark “Virginia Diner” touting itself as a “legend in a nutshell” and pushing the best fried chicken around.

The small signs are the political part of the landscape and when they appear, watch out!  When the Navy tried to put an “Outlying Landing Field” for super-loud Super Hornet F-18 jet fighters to practice carrier landings in local piney woods at night,  similarly-sized signs screaming “No OLF” popped up. The Navy got beached. Ditto when the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative tried to stick  a huge coal-fired generating station in Surry County. The signs read: “No Coal Plant.” The project has been cancelled.

The message is that when the signs sprout, whoever is the target is in a heap of trouble, boy. That’s because the sign placers usually win. In this case, the losers will be  Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Sean Connaughton, his Cardinal Richelieu of state transportation. Both want to generate $30 million to $40 million a year for highway maintenance shortfalls by putting tolls near Emporia on Interstate 95, the only real north-south artery in the area that connects with U.S. 460.

Like so many, these men are the omnipresent right-wing politicians of today who pledge fiscal conservatism. But  instead of doing it by across-the-board cuts that affect all, they selectively push the costs along to someone else and call it a cut. In this case, it would be the people who tend to use I-95 in the very southern part of the state. As one commenter said in The Virginian-Pilot Website, the tolls would target “yankees and snowbirds” who take I-95 to see their grandkids or visit Disney World. The problem is, the tolls also affect people who are among the poorest in the state.

Even fellow Republican George Allen, candidate for U.S. Senate, has split with McDonnell on the toll issue. Allen says he supports McDonnell’s wonderful transportation ideas. He adds: “However, I do not support the proposal to install tolls on the southern stretch of I-95. Southern Virginia already faces significant economic challenges and these tolls could disadvantage job-creating businesses in the region.”

Virginia is chock-a-block with idealists and propagandists who would stick a user fee or a toll in front of every Virginian during every part of his or her day. They will do anything to cut a budget and let the “free market” determine all and promote business. Of course, we won’t go into the fact that various truckers trade groups — a distinct business — are fighting the I-95 tools tooth and nail.

But what to the conservative policy wonks care? They probably don’t drive the roads anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s consider that privately-owned toll roads probably aren’t the way to go, either.

In Northern Virginia, the limited access Greenway, owned by the Macquarie Group of Australia, is drawing unusual fire for charging $5.50 at peak times even though the road isn’t that long.

West Virginia resident Angela Petry, a musician, has struck back with her Greenway protest song.  Titled “Highway robbery,”the song states:

“Fourteen miles and it’s nice and smooth

From Leesburg to Dulles you can really move

Drive every day but you cry at night

Cause the price of tolls is out of sight.”

I think it’s time to get a similar song going for I-95. U.S. 460 would be great, too, because McDonnell and his transportation Politburo have big plans for replacing U.S. 460 bypassing local icons such as “The Virgina Diner.” Various city governments, including those in Norfolk, hate the idea.

If you have song ideas, please email them to Jim will love you for it.

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  1. Good post. The only point I’d raise is that VDOT is exploring ways to lessen the impact on locals who use Interstate 95 for local transportation. Perhaps their transponders could be rigged to let them ride for free or at a reduced rate. It will be interesting to see if that idea proves to be workable.

    The I-95 fracas goes back to my basic political principle for tolls: Don’t ever toll a road that people are accustomed to driving for free. (HOT lane projects are different because they are adding lanes and create options that didn’t exist before. No one is compelled to pay a HOT lane toll.)

    I have no sympathy for anyone who objects to tolls on the Dulles Greenway. That was a privately funded, toll-driven project from the beginning. If people don’t want to use it, they can drive on local roads… or not move out to Loudoun County.

  2. I think Va is purposely going after the option of tolling existing interstates to establish the precedent that will then, in theory, remove the ” you can’t toll existing roads” objection.

    They’ve explicitly made the point in the local Fredericksburg paper that the I-95 tolls will help build infrastructure in the Fredericksburg Area and you can bet if they take that bait – the next proposal is going to be for tollbooths in the Fredericksburg Area to help pay for “more” infrastructure.

    If you are an elected official – and you are opposed to increases in gas taxes, I do not see how you can also be opposed to tolls.

    So if you read George Allen’s objection more closely you’ll see that it’s pretty feckless:

    ” “Tolls at times may be appropriate for new construction when paid for by those who would use the road. However, I do not support the proposal to install tolls on the southern stretch of I-95,” Allen’s one-paragraph statement said.”

    so where does that really leave George on how to pay for roads?

    I think the irony here with the GOP and “user fees” is pretty delicious myself. The “no mo tax (and fees are taxes)” is coming back to bite them in the butt.

    I can see McDonnell right now at some point saying “but I did not increase gas taxes”…..


  3. Would the same people support an increase in the gas tax? A big part of the problem is a lot of people are still hurting economically.

  4. I think the way things are going – an increase in the gas tax is never going to be justifiable politically or in the eyes of consumers, economically justifiable – especially at the levels needed to buy any kind of serious infrastructure.

    I think the future is the Dulles Toll Road and Greenway – more of it in more places and all of it with no tollbooths – just transponders or photo tolling and once the idea of keeping a transponder in your car is established – tolls will become more common and perhaps even used for parking.

    VDOT needs a sustainable source of funding that keeps pace with road use to be able to really plan for new roads and the gas tax just does not do that anymore. The gas tax is a dodo bird that is fast on it’s way out.

    We know that new tunnels in Hampton and increased truck traffic from the ports is not going to get done with gas taxes.

    We know that the beltway and I-95 south to Stafford are going to be tolled.

    At some point most of I-95 and I-81 is going to be tolled if for no other reason to be able to maintain and improve them, add capacity, hill-climbing lanes – and it only makes sense to let out of state travelers pay their fair share.

    When I travel to the northeastern US, I don’t even think twice about it as my transponder is already attached and I don’t give it another thought. I much prefer toll roads because they generally are well maintained and the traffic is usually reasonable – in part – because tolls tend to tamp down frivolous use.

  5. here’s an interesting poll on the I-95 tolls:

    it shows that as many Virginians support the idea as oppose it.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    “The only point I’d raise is that VDOT is exploring ways to lessen the impact on locals who use Interstate 95 for local transportation. Perhaps their transponders could be rigged to let them ride for free or at a reduced rate. It will be interesting to see if that idea proves to be workable.”.

    That would be a clear case of restraining interstate commerce. No chance it passes muster.

    Virginia faces crappy transportation choices because our state legislature sucks out loud. Period. Billions and billions of dollars in transportation funds have been lost by not indexing the gas tax to inflation. This is not a tax increase. This is simply keeping the gas tax up with inflation. Refusing to do this has resulted in cuts to transportation funding (in real terms) each and every year since 1986. When you cut transportation funding in a growing state you get crappy results. Hence, my assertion that the transportation problems in Virginia point straight back to the state house in Richmond.

    Bacon’s belief in not tolling already built roads is classic Richmond. Richmond is over – represented on the CTB since that bastion of autocracy was last “redistricted” in 1935 – way back when Richmond was still the number 1 MSA in Virginia. Now, Richmond is number 3 and fading fast. However, that certainly doesn’t prevent Richmond from being over-represented in pretty much everything – including CTB membership.

    Presumably, Jim Bacon believes the four lane Beltway surrounding the 1.5M population MSA of Richmond was constructed for free by road fairies. One also has to assume that acon believes the road maintains itself.

    I’d support user fees for new roads too if I lived in an area where the roads have been massively overbuilt free of direct charge.

    You know, Jim – even Marie Antoinette felt “the little people” should have cake. You and the rest of the Richmond elite should take a lesson from Ms. Antoinette – at least let us “little people” outside of Richmond have a little cake.

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    I wonder what Virginia Democrats would say of Gov McDonnell reduced the state budget by rolling back teacher salaries to what they were in 1986. I wonder what Virginia Republicans would say if Gov McDonnell rolled back the state police salaries to what they were paid in 1986.


    Then why is it not silly to have a gas tax that is frozen in cents / gallon at 1986 rates?

  8. re: ” Perhaps their transponders could be rigged to let them ride for free or at a reduced rate. It will be interesting to see if that idea proves to be workable.”.

    That would be a clear case of restraining interstate commerce. No chance it passes muster.”

    take a look at the CBBT toll:

    1 Two-axle, four-tire vehicle including passenger car, pick-up truck, panel truck, station wagon, motorcycle (with all its attachments), and minibus/van with 15 or less seating capacity.
    – $12.00
    Return trip within 24 hours (Receipt Required) $5.00

    this sounds like a manual process…. rather than a computerized…though

    but this would be relatively easy to do.

    DJ keeps looking back rather than forward and he continues to avoid the reality of what happens to politicians who support an increase in the gas tax, including indexing it.

    The GOP, you know, those “no mo tax” guys, has spent the last 25 years skewering any Dem who has advocated increasing the Va gas tax.

    I note here that in most of Va, the opposition rate to a gas tax increase approaches 80% but even in places like Hampton and NoVa, the opposition is in the 60% range.

    so what is the political reality here rather than blaming VDOT and the Richmond “clown show”?

    People don’t like tolls either but there is about a 10-15% difference in the opposition rate, i.e. more people support tolls than an increase in the gas tax. VDOT and Politicians have already recognized that metric.

  9. I’m not convinced that indexing the gas tax would have actually resulted in true, beneficial improvements to our transportation network.

    I think we would have seen more bypasses and other developer-driven boondoggles probably to include new roads driven by economic development than transportation need.

    but it’s water under the bridge now anyhow and it’s not like we do
    not have any way to build new roads – we do – but they will be toll and the tolling paradigm brings a real discipline to the process that requires a much harder look at need and the involvement of the private sector in determining financial feasibility.

    I would think that DJ, a businessman, should favor a more business-like approach to the process of determining transportation infrastructure need.

    It’ll be interesting to see how HOT lanes affect congestion, especially peak hour congestion. I’m betting, we’re going to see benefits and I’m betting that DJ is going to become won over to the idea as he realizes that when he is in a hurry and needs to get to the airport or a meeting, that he will now have an option and the old adage that time is money is going to rule again.

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