The good news is that Virginia may be one step closer to improving the traffic flow on Interstate 95. The Federal Highway Administration has granted Virginia preliminary authority to charge tolls on vehicles entering Virginia from North Carolina and presumably at other points along the route.
The bad news is that there is a formidable set of questions to be answered and steps that must be taken before preliminary approval can become permission and the process can move forward.
Let me mention a few: (1) complete an environmental review; (2) develop a plan for I-95 improvements that will expand capacity within the resource constraints of the new funding; (3) decide where toll booths will be located and why; (4) pledge that all toll revenues will be used to replace other federal dollars that would have been used for maintenance and upgrades for the portions of the road that are tolled.
This is a hefty list and each step presents problems and questions. We all agree that I-95 desperately needs capacity and maintenance improvements. But, what does it really mean to dedicate toll revenues exclusively to improvements around the tolling site? How much will these improvements cost? How much federal money will that free up for other transportation projects? How open will the process be for deciding tolling locations? How will these decisions be made and who will make them? When in the process will the public have a chance to have meaningful input?
Many of my constituents and others across Northern Virginia have been disappointed with the environmental impact of the HOT lane construction around the beltway. I am certain that environmental groups will speak for many in places that will be affected and demand more transparency, in terms of project detail at the beginning of the process, and accountability for the results.
We have heard estimates that $250 million may be collected in tolls over the first five years. Given the constraints, it is important to understand where this estimate comes from and what the assumptions are. Frankly, the track record we have for cost and revenue estimates from the current administration in Richmond is not very good. Remember the ABC stores? Just how much of the revenues collected will be offset by the cost to develop and maintain the tolling system and, by the way, what is the process for deciding toll amounts and who’s responsible for the decision? The General Assembly?
Another concern is the impact on traffic flow. Technology seems to have addressed localized toll congestion around booths, except if we’re thinking of new tolls along parts of I-95 subject to rush hour. As a frequent traveler on I-95 between here and Richmond, I can attest that rush hour traffic volumes happen along the entire route. Apart from localized bottlenecks, I think the potential for diversion of traffic onto non-toll routes, like I-81 or U.S. 1 should also be factored into the cost-benefit equation.
An even bigger question is looming in the background: the question of public-private partnerships. Already I hear talk of leveraging these toll revenues to encourage more private investment in highway infrastructure. I’m not sure how the constraints on the use of these new dollars would fit with this idea. But since I continue to have concerns regarding the total economic, environmental, and social impact of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia, I would not be willing to support expansion of the concept before we have some real-world experience.
I am certain there are many more questions to ask and answers to evaluate, but my bottom line is that I-95 toll revenue could be a small part of the transportation plan Virginia needs. But I don’t see this initiative relieving traffic gridlock or filling potholes in Northern Virginia anytime soon. I will continue to work for comprehensive transportation solutions with balanced investments, incentives, and dedicated revenue sources that we will need to fund the 21st century infrastructure to maintain our prosperity and quality of life.
Kaye Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates.