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Public weighs in on proposed toll

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BY SCOTT SHENK

In the parking lot of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Stafford office on Deacon Road, there was a tractor-trailer with “No 95 Tolls” plastered on it.

Nearby was a hearse next to a coffin with an anti-toll sign on it and a faux skeleton in it. It was a clear message from those who showed up for Monday’s public hearing on VDOT’s proposal to toll Interstate 95.

About 47 people attended the hearing, most of whom were from Sussex County, where the proposed toll would be built. Many of them also attended the two meetings VDOT held last week.

“I’ve not met one person that supports this,” said Rex Davis, a Sussex resident whose family’s business owns Davis Travel Centers, one of which  is in the planned toll area.

He, and others with the trucking industry-backed opposition group Virginiatollfree95, said the toll would do nothing but harm an area that is already economically depressed.

They also say tolls simply aren’t efficient enough and there are other ways to raise more transportation funding, such as with a gas tax increase.  “This thing is just a stop sign” to tourism and commerce, Davis said before the meeting.

VDOT’s Mike Estes gave a presentation, aided by a slideshow and numerous informational placards, during the two-hour public hearing. After the presentation he fielded a dozen questions.

Residents asked why an I-95 toll was needed at all, and why in Sussex.

They also doubted there would be  financial benefits from the toll, as VDOT has said. They also wanted to know if there are plans to add more tolls along the interstate — early proposals included numerous other toll locations, one of which was in Caroline County. 

Opponents believe the plan is to eventually add more tolls on I-95.

The plan is part of a federal pilot project that includes Virginia and two other states. The Federal Highway Administration has to approve the plan. If tolls are approved, they could be up and running by 2015, according to VDOT.

VDOT has said that the toll plan is only one option the state is looking at to help fill a $10.1 billion funding gap needed to fix and upgrade the aging and crumbling interstate infrastructure.

VDOT’s Mike Estes told the crowd that the state’s current 17.5-cent gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since the 1980s, is worth about 8 cents in today’s dollars.

“Traffic is going up  and revenue is going down,” he said.

He said VDOT hired an economist who provided details on potential economic benefits. He added that the highway department will also look at the economic impacts and benefits in more depth in an environmental analysis required by the feds.

As for alternatives, Estes said the gas tax is in the hands of Virginia’s General Assembly.

Several people asked if more tolls along the interstate are being planned.

VDOT’S Mike Estes said eventually there could be more than one toll added to I-95. But, he explained, VDOT included the entire interstate corridor — from the North Carolina border to Northern Virginia — in its application to the feds to give the state more flexibility and because “we look at 95 as one facility.”

 

Chester Carter, who owns an RV and truck repair facility near where the toll would go, said he gets most of his business from interstate traffic. A toll, he said, would “put me out of business.”

Estes said VDOT is still looking at the potential impact on the Sussex community and ways to give rebates to area residents as well as travelers who pull off I-95 in the tolled area to spend money.

Only one person supported the toll plan — Fredericksburg resident Rupert Farley. “I think tolls are the only fair way to raise money to build roads with,” he said. “The thing I don’t get about this toll project is you’ve got it backwards.”

He said the toll should be put in Northern Virginia, before pausing and adding that one should probably be built in the area near the North Carolina border, too.

Estes said the Sussex spot was chosen because the area has one of the lowest traffic counts on the interstate and would impact the least amount of drivers.

He also said data showed that traffic along that stretch is mainly comprised of drivers from out-of-state who are taking long road trips.

For more information, virginiadot.org. has information on the toll proposal and video of the three public hearings.

Scott Shenk:  540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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