McDonnell’s I-95 Toll Gambit

Powhite Parkway toll

by James A. Bacon

Tolls on Interstate 95? They could be in our future. The Federal Highway Administration yesterday granted the Virginia Department of Transportation preliminary approval to a request by Governor Bob McDonnell to toll the Interstate, subject to certain “important steps” that VDOT must take before full approval is granted, according to a press release issued by the governor’s office.

It was not clear from the press release where the McDonnell administration will place the tolls or what rates would be charged. In a May 2010 Washington Post article, written when Virginia submitted the request, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said he was contemplating tolls of $2 to $4 at a location near the North Carolina border with the goal of capturing primarily inter-state traffic. But the Times-Dispatch says today that state officials will look at other locations because the feds “want tolls to be collected in the areas where the money will be spent.”

In yesterday’s press release, VDOT estimated that tolls could generate $50 million annually. The revenues could be applied to widening the highway between I-295 north of Richmond and the North Carolina border, enhancing Intelligent Transportation Systems, installing over-height detectors on bridges, widening shoulders, installing guardrails, and improving pavement on more than 700 lane-miles within the corridor.

McDonnell described the heavily traveled highway corridor as having “deficient pavements and structures, congestion, higher crash density and safety concerns.” The entire I-95 corridor averages a level of service of ‘D’ and some more urban portions are ‘F’ during peak periods.

I have to say, this announcement took me by surprise. I had no inkling of it. The conservative radio talk shows will probably have a field day with it. But I have no objection in principle to tolling I-95, with the provisos, which the McDonnell administration apparently intends to abide by, that (1) the funds will be restricted to making improvements within the corridor, and (2) the money will be spent in the areas in which they are collected. The guiding principle is that the user/beneficiary of the project pays. Thus, if a priority project is widening I-95 between Hanover County and Petersburg, motorists in the Richmond metropolitan region are the ones who should pay the tolls — not motorists in Northern Virginia or Emporia.

I have to agree with the Federal Highway Administration on this one: Charging $2 to $4 at a single location near the North Carolina border was a terrible idea. The whole purpose was to soak inter-state travelers while exempting drivers in the Richmond-Petersburg area who use the Interstate every day. Such a strategy would invite a retaliatory response from North Carolina. It would set a horrific precedent that could be replicated nationally.

It’s too early to say whether the tolls, even as provisionally approved, are a good idea. I’d like to see the McDonnell administration’s cost-benefit study — assuming there is one. Politically, imposing a toll on a road where there was none will be wildly unpopular. People want the improvements — but they want “someone else” to pay for them. But in the abstract an Interstate corridor as important as I-95 should have an ongoing source of revenue to pay for maintenance and upgrades, much as is done in the case of the Powhite Parkway/Downtown Expressway here in the Richmond region. Of course, the devil is in the details.

(Note: It appears that Peter beat me to the punch on this topic. We were drafting posts simultaneously. He published his first.)

Update: In the post below, Peter contends that the toll amounts to a tax. I think it’s too early to say. It all depends on how the money is spent. It is useful to distinguish between “taxes” and “user fees.” With user fees, people pay for a good or service they receive from the government, such as access to roads and highways. If the tolls exceed the sum needed to pay for maintaining and upgrading the roads and if the surplus is diverted to another use — think Dulles Toll Road and Rail-to-Dulles — then it would constitute a tax. We’ll have to see where McDonnell wants to put the I-95 tolls and how he proposes to spend the money. On the other hand, from the standpoint of political perceptions, the tolls inevitably will be considered a tax because they will be imposed on roads that people had previously ridden upon toll-free.

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11 responses to “McDonnell’s I-95 Toll Gambit”

  1. ” In the post below, Peter contends that the toll amounts to a tax.”

    well you can call it what you want but the real point here is that we have a Republican administration saying that we need more revenues as opposed to saying that we tax enough already but don’t spend it wisely.

    fess up Jim Bacon – that’s the message here.

    so when Democrats say we need more money for roads – the Republicans kill them for advocating more wasteful govt spending .. and then the very same guys sneak around to find ways to … tax & spend…

    so which is it?

    Is McDonnell advocating tax & spend or not?

  2. Larry, I have no special interest in defending the McDonnell administration — or attacking it. But you seem to. You look at everything through a partisan prism. I don’t find that terribly helpful in trying to figure out what’s best for the people of Virginia.

  3. I don’t have a partisan prism. I am an equal opportunity critic of the largely useless General Assembly which is destroying Virginia with its sloth, corruption and incompetence.

    The gas tax is the perfect example of the General Assembly’s incompetence.

    The tax hasn’t been frozen – it’s been cut in half by inflation and cars which get better gas milage.

    If you doubled the gas tax tomorrow you could honestly say that Virginia hasn’t raised the gas tax in 25 years. At least, not in real terms. Other taxes (like sales taxes and income taxes) automatically rise with inflation. The gas tax does not.

    How many years has the General Assembly gone to Richmond to decry the “transportation funding crisis” in Virginia? How many times have they either done nothing or done something so hopelessly inept that it was almost immediately struck down by the state supreme court?

    God bless Bob McDonnell – at least he’s doing something about the “transportation crisis”. And that’s far more than I can say about his predecessor.

    And … for the record … the Republiclowns are clearly more to blame for Virginia’s transportation fiasco than the Democrats. Job creation my ass. Virginia’s Republiclowns could no more create jobs than elephants can fly.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t sleep. So, I blogged. Looks like I’ll have to get up at 3 a.m. to beat your crazy ideas to the punch.


  5. re: partisan prism…

    well no.. I’m opposed to hypocrisy… You can be a Conservative but you have to hew to your principles in govt and if your premise is that VDOT is a wasteful agency and that we’d have money for roads if we spent it more wisely – I expect follow through.

    the Dems don’t have the hypocrisy problem (at least on roads) – they’ve always said what Groveton is saying .. but everytime they say it the Publicans kill them at elections for being tax&spenders.

    the reason why we have gridlock is the dishonest way that Republicans deal with the budget.

    (the dems have their own problems also… and I hold them accountable for their issues too).

    in terms of Virginia being “backward” – we are joined by about 2 dozen other “low tax” states who have low taxes and crippled road funding as a result.

    In fact – the states who do fund transportation – are often held up as examples of high-tax states that people leave to go to low-tax states…

    I still say that NoVa could decide to tax itself as a region to deal with its transportation needs rather than blaming it on Richmond.

    So can Tidewater, Richmond, Charlottesville, etc…

    we are out of money at the state level for anything but the most significant state-level priorities. More money is not going to be forthcoming from the State – nor the Feds which are current adding 30billion of general revenues to the gas tax revenues and that’s probably going to stop …

    the future for the Feds is a program known as TIFIA – which basically is an infrastructure bank that requires matching funds – and pay back of the loan.

  6. And just what will improve with a tax increase? This is just more of the same old, same old. The Virginia real estate development industry views tax dollars as the least the peasants can contribute to their betters. VDOT needs more money, but we need reform of the transportation and land use laws first.
    Pass Jim LeMunyon’s bill to require the ranking of transportation projects in terms of return on investment and their impacts on reducing traffic congestion and improve safety. Put a requirement to disclose the substance of any contacts with the CTB or its members. Raise fees for overweight trucks to recover their cost. Devolve control over local roads to counties, just like cities and towns have. Use the same funding formula for counties as is used for cities and towns.
    If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you will keep on getting what you’ve been getting. Keep in mind that both NoVA and Tidewater rejected tax increases for transportation because the people knew that there would be no major improvements for the average taxpayer. Nothing has changed. Make the reforms first and then talk about indexing the gas tax.

  7. I like the idea of prioritizing and ranking projects but that is a real problematical idea rife with abuses.

    but I have a suggestion for ranking projects more objectively.

    for each project – have an investor-grade toll study done.

    I say investor-grade rather than VDOT – have an independent study done by financiers.

    if the study indicates that the highest toll that can be charged without reducing traffic is enough to pay for the project then it would be said to have a postive cost-benefit ratio and any project that did not meet that threshold would be tossed.

    then the ranking would be done strictly on how viable the road would be as a toll road.

    Then you’d advertise them as PPTA solicitations.

    the ones that did not receive solicitations but still showed positive return would be prioritized for state funding.

    I would include all kinds of tolling – from static to peak hour to cordon to include parking authorities.

    we need to take away the process for determining “need’ from developers and people that developers can influence.

  8. No one knows how to properly cost transportation, apparently.

    Larrys suggestion is only partly right.
    TMT is mostly wrong.
    Unloading on developers makes no sense.
    It is not about creating jobs, at least not jobs HERE necessarily.

    for example

    ” it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb.”

    That indicates the level and breadth of things to consider before you can claim to have done a systems analysis of a given transportation project.

  9. Why should taxpayers fund projects that merely enrich someone’s land investments rather than projects that improve safety or decrease traffic congestion?

  10. this is exactly why localities should be responsible for their own roads.

    that way they can weigh development proposals in terms of impacts and benefits and how good a ‘fit’ they are for their community.

    they take responsibility for the choices they make and the consequences of their impacts.

    roads of statewide significance should be the responsibility of VDOT – including protecting their utility and connectivity.

    new limited- access roads should require an investment grade tolling analysis as a proxy for “need”. You’ll end up with a study that shows how much traffic it would have with no tolls and how much traffic falls off for various priced tolls.

    if the traffic projections change little even when tolls are brought into the equation – that’s an indication of legitimate need.

    if traffic projections plummet when tolls are added – that’s an indication that the road’s need is discretionary and not vital.

  11. […] Bob McDonnell and his Transportation Secretary, Sean Connaughton, lit up a firestorm across the commonwealth this week with an outline of a plan, via the Federal Highway Adm…). We suspect the debate will get more vociferous on the policy — but more so on the political […]

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