McDonnell proposes tolls on Interstate 95 in Virginia near N.C. border

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Faced with crumbling roads and lacking the money to repair them, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has asked for federal permission to impose tolls on the southern reaches of Interstate 95.

In an appeal to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, McDonnell (R) estimated that tolls of $2 to $4 on I-95 near the North Carolina border could raise $30 million to $60 million a year.

"Right now, we're just contemplating one toll facility at the North Carolina border," said Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia's transportation secretary. "We selected that location because most of the traffic is interstate."

If the request is approved, it would be 18 to 24 months before toll collection could begin, he said. The state had approval for a trucks-only toll scheme on Interstate 81, but, Connaughton said, facing "an enormous amount of opposition," authorities asked to toll all vehicles on I-95.

He said that authorization could allow tolling as far north as Fredericksburg but that "right now, we're just contemplating the one toll facility."

Cash-strapped states are eager for new revenue, but McDonnell's letter underscored a larger, long-term issue that will endure after the economy rebounds. Many of the nation's highways, especially the interstate system, have reached the end of their lifespan.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, the principal source of highway funding, is faced with insolvency, and the federal highway program has been stalled as Congress debates what to do about the situation.

The gap is enormous: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated five years ago that $222 billion a year was needed to maintain the surface transportation system. Revenue flowing into the Highway Trust Fund, which relies primarily on gas taxes, was falling about $45 billion short of that amount.

A congressional commission last year considered more than two dozen options before recommending a national transition from a fuel-tax-based revenue system to one "measured by miles driven."

In the lexicon of the 21st century, that's called "highway pricing," but it comes down to tolls of the sort that Virginia wants to impose.

"We are just seeing an increase in the number of miles being traveled," Connaughton said, "but we're not seeing a corresponding increase in gas tax revenues, because people are driving smaller cars, hybrids and electric vehicles."

The Federal Highway Administration rejected a similar request last month from Pennsylvania, which sought to charge tolls on Interstate 80. The state wanted to use revenue from that highway, which spans the northern half of Pennsylvania on the way from New Jersey to California, to fund other transportation projects.

LaHood said no, citing federal law that says any tolls collected on an interstate must be used exclusively for the highway where they are collected.

McDonnell made it clear he wants to use I-95 tolls for I-95 repairs. "Significant portions of Interstate Route 95 have deficient pavements and structures," he wrote, which contribute to one of the highest accident rates in the state. "The Commonwealth intends to use revenues generated through tolling to address a number of safety concerns throughout the [I-95] corridor."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company