Former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) has proposed a plan to charge tolls on the Capital Beltway, on Interstates 66, 95 and 395 and at dozens of other spots across Virginia as a way to raise $1 billion a year to solve the state's mounting transportation problems.
In all, the plan calls for charging a toll of 85 cents at 38 spots on interstate highways that Baliles said would fund several much-needed projects, including widening the Beltway and other major commuter routes in Northern Virginia.
Baliles has been a major figure in Virginia transportation, and his proposal is the most comprehensive solution presented to solving the state's transportation problems, but it is as fraught with obstacles as it is ambitious.
For starters, Virginia would have to receive special permission from the federal government to tack tolls on interstates. The idea also would surely set off a fight between legislators who support tolls and those who don't, and it probably would face considerable opposition from truckers, commercial delivery companies and commuters, who would suddenly see their costs rising by several dollars a day.
Nevertheless, state leaders have turned to tolls as a solution for their transportation woes, and Baliles's proposal adds another powerful name to their efforts. Tolls are planned for virtually every major expansion project across the state, including proposals to add lanes to the Beltway, I-95 and I-395.
Baliles, who served as governor from 1986 to 1990, is known as Virginia's "transportation governor" because of his focus on the issue. He is the last governor to make a major difference in transportation funding, winning a half-cent increase on the sales tax during a special session of the General Assembly in 1986.
Baliles, now a partner at the law firm of Hunton and Williams, has criticized his successors for making incremental fixes and has made a series of speeches in recent years calling for broader solutions to get Virginians moving.
He also is part of a consortium of leading developers who submitted an offer this summer to purchase and upgrade the Dulles Toll Road for more than $1 billion in exchange for toll revenue. The state is considering the offer.
Baliles was unavailable for comment yesterday. His voice mail said he would be out of the country and unreachable for several weeks.
His plan was laid out in a 12-page letter dated Aug. 23 and addressed to Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Westmoreland), who is leading a transportation task force due to make recommendations by the end of the year.
Baliles described the state's deficiencies in transportation as "overwhelming" and the costs for fixing them as "enormous." He wrote that a lack of political will to make substantive changes led him to the toll proposal.
"Resistance to any form of tax increase remains strong, and the rising gas prices only increase that resistance," he wrote. But, he said, "the bottom line is that transportation needs must be able to depend upon dedicated revenue sources."
The former governor acknowledged the challenges his plan faces. "I'm sure this proposal will be picked to pieces and, if it survives, may be barely recognizable at the end," he wrote. But he said that if Virginia had the courage to adopt it, state officials would be "hailed as innovators and promptly imitated."
Chichester said yesterday that "Gerry Baliles is not one to make frivolous propositions about transportation or any other thing" and that his proposal "opens up a toll dialogue for those studying transportation."
Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said, "It's clearly a thoughtful proposal, and it recognizes the needs that have been identified in our statewide planning processes."
Baliles laid out his vision in extensive detail, listing the spots where he envisioned tolls and the amount of revenue each site would take in. In Northern Virginia, he proposed tolling drivers on the Beltway at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Route 50 and the American Legion Bridge.
On I-66, drivers would be tolled at Vienna and at Prince William County's borders with Fairfax and Fauquier counties. Drivers on I-395 would be charged at the D.C. line, and I-95 motorists would be charged at Backlick Road.