Robert F. McDonnell has won preliminary federal approval to charge drivers $2 to $4 on parts of Interstate 95, supposedly to help the cash-starved state fund “safety” improvements. The last time Virginia had a toll on I-95 was 1992, the year that tolls were finally ended between Richmond and Petersburg.
There are a few problems with his plan. First, it is hugely out of character for a Republican governor with national ambitions who tries to keep in vogue with the “no tax” mantra of his GOP colleagues. A toll is a tax.
Second problem: McDonnell is most likely to place the tax on parts of I-95 that are the least traveled. Toll booths could be stuck at the North Carolina border and then again at Massaponax just south of Fredericksburg. Daily volumes are 40,000 vehicles a day around the Tar Heel line and about 145,000 a day near Fredericksburg.
Road use is much higher in the D.C. area, namely 215,000 cars a day at the Springfield interchange in Northern Virginia. So if you are really interested in racking up some cash, why not put the tolls there?
The answer is that McDonnell doesn’t have the guts to annoy Northern Virginia drivers. My guess is that this is the advice McDonnell is getting in-house: If you want your tolls, put them where the people with the least political clout have to endure them, namely, the folks who live in the rural, less affluent areas of Southside.
Plus, Yankees, ahem, Northerners running their vans up and down 95 to see grandma in Florida or go to Disney World don’t vote in Virginia and are used to paying tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. Don’t even bother to think about the North Carolinians. Years ago, being from the Tar Heel State could just about bring a jail sentence in a Richmond court.
The McDonnell interstate tax would generate a mere $30 million to $60 million a year. That’s pin money when the state’s transportation needs are $20 billion. And the tolls are a regressive tax, like the food tax, that hurt the poorest people hardest. With the way highway building has gone in the past half century, it will be difficult for them to find alternatives to I-95.
This troubling news comes just as federal cutbacks could kill the highly-successful Amtrak train from Lynchburg to Washington passenger train. In fact, 60 percent of Amtrak service in the state would end.
Let’s hope McDonnell’s toll idea goes the way of his plans to privatize liquor stores and drill for offshore oil.