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Toll road: Virginia plans to make drivers pay on Interstate 95

September 20, 2011 | 10:12 am

Toll booth 
Warning to drivers in the land of free-ways: Virginia has received tentative approval to begin charging tolls on Interstate 95 in an experiment that could be extended to other regions.

Although Los Angeles and other parts of the country have been experimenting with allowing toll-paying solo commuters into carpool lanes or using tolls to finance new roads, Virginia is on the verge of joining Missouri in planning to charge motorists for using all lanes of an existing interstate.

The interstate system has been largely free of tolls since its birth in 1956, though a number of old turnpikes, mostly on the East Coast, charge motorists.

A provision of the 1998 federal highway bill authorized three projects nationwide to test collecting tolls as a way to fund road improvements, especially reconstruction of deteriorating segments of the interstate system. The experiments come as gas tax receipts, which fund highway construction, have fallen off because of increased vehicle fuel efficiency, and there's strong opposition to a gas tax increase.

A third state has yet to be selected for the toll experiment, though Rhode Island, North Carolina and Arizona have expressed interest in the program.

Virginia is considering charging $2 to $4 per car on the stretch of I-95 between Fredericksburg and the North Carolina border. The projected $30 million to $60 million in revenue would pay for road improvements on the section where the toll is collected.

The state needs to take a number of steps before tolling can begin, perhaps in two years.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell hailed the preliminary federal approval for the tolling project, calling it a "major step forward" to funding improvements on a corridor critical to the state's economic health. I-95 is a major north-south corridor along the Eastern Seaboard.

"The commonwealth cannot continue to be a leader in economic development and job creation if we do not address our transportation needs," McDonnell said in a statement.

His spokesman, Jeff Caldwell, said public reaction to the proposed tolls had been mixed.

"A lot of folks are saying this is a good idea, knowing that transportation revenue is declining and needs are increasing," he added. "We have to figure out a better way to fund transportation. It’s an issue that’s continuing to grow because cars are getting more efficient. ... A toll is a true user free in that it is collecting money from those who are using that particular road."

But the president of the American Trucking Assn., Bill Graves, said in a statement that tolls would add to I-95’s congestion or "drive trucks off onto smaller secondary roads that aren’t designed to handle the increased traffic.''

There remains strong resistance in Congress to an expansion of tolls.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said he opposes "taking any existing capacity that's free and tolling it." Mica, in fact, wrote into federal law a ban on imposing tolls on existing segments of interstates that run through his district.

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a Santa Monica think tank, would seem to disagree with that position. He said in an e-mail: "The biggest need our Interstate system has over the next several decades is complete reconstruction. Using tolling to finance reconstruction is not tolling 'existing' lanes; it’s tolling to pay for their replacement."

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A driver pays a toll collector in California. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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