Steamy and sticky in the late summer humidity, U.S. 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg has the milieu of the Deep South. The rural landscape is dotted with rusting peanut processing plants, red brick buildings and, now, small square signs stating “No-Tolls on I-95.”
The signs are part of what seems to be a rising movement by ordinary Virginians against highway tolls that seem to be some politicians’ favored method of handling highway maintenance. The “user-fee” method helps them keep their anti-tax dogma pure and not be confronted with raising the state’s ultra-low gasoline tax of 17.5 cents a gallon.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has pitched putting tolls booths on Interstate 95 near Emporia to help pay for the state’s share of interstate maintenance. While the tolls would hit many out-of-state travellers driving on the major north-south route, they also would impact some of the state’s poorest people, plus truck drivers whose trade organizations have complained loudly. Folks around U.S. 460, which connects with I-95 at Petersburg, feel threatened.
In another part of the state, tolls have even sparked a protest song. Angela Petry, a West Virginia resident who frequently rides the limited-access Greenway connecting Leesburg and Dulles in Loudoun County, has penned “Highway Robbery,” which decries the $5.50 peak hour toll on the 14-mile road, a private artery owned by the Macquarie Group of Australia. Her lyrics: “Drive every day, but you cry at night, cause the price of tolls is out of sight.”
Virginia’s Democratic and Republican leaders generally like toll roads, but the current outcries against tolls are splitting the GOP. McDonnell and Transportation SecretarySean Connaughton expect to get more than $30 million a year from the I-95 tolls, but other Republicans are against them.
One is Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, whose district runs from Suffolk to Chesterfield, and another is former governor and U.S. Senate candidate George Allen. “Southern Virginia,” says Allen, “already faces significant economic challenges and these tolls could disadvantage job-creating business in the region.”
Some toll roads have become white elephants. One is the 8.8 mile Pocahontas Parkway that connects I-95 with I-295 southeast of Richmond. The toll way ran into serious financial trouble from a lack of users after it was opened in 2002. Former Gov. Mark Warner arranged its sale to Transurban, an Australian firm, in 2006.
Transurban wants to unload the parkway because ridership and revenue from its $3 toll are a financial drain on the company.
The power of grass-roots protest should be underestimated. Just a few years ago, small signs appeared along U.S. 460 protesting the Navy’s plans to build a small practice landing field to handle simulated carrier landings by very loud F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters. Later signs protested a planned 1,500 megawatt coal-fired electricity plant in Surry County. Neither project went anywhere. To be sure, other factors were at play, but protest power cannot be denied.