LUMBERTON — State Rep. Charles Graham says he is not going to support any proposal that would require Robeson County residents to pay tolls to use Interstate 95 — no matter how minimal they might be.
“A toll is still a toll,” Graham said. “They would be economically painful … . Based on how much our citizens use I-95 for access to medical services, to get to work and other personal driving needs, making them pay tolls to use the interstate would be asking too much of our citizens.”
Graham was referring to an economic study released last week that suggests mitigated tolling is the best way to pay for the state’s share — 10 percent — of an estimated $4.4 billion in repairs and new construction to the 182 miles of I-95 that pass through North Carolina. Mitigated tolling is one of the methods of funding future I-95 projects that are outlined in the study prepared at the request of the General Assembly.
The study calls for a 50 percent discounted toll for North Carolina residents. It’s estimated that tolls for traveling the entire 182 miles of interstate passing through North Carolina would be $20 for motorists who do not live in North Carolina.
For Robeson County, the plan includes two tolling sites, at mile marker 12 near U.S. 74 and between mile markers 28 and 31 at St. Pauls.
A state study released last year showed that tolling is the best way to pay for widening, rebuilding or raising overpasses and making safety improvements to the aging interstate. A plan introduced by the state Department of Transportation called for tolls to be collected from travelers every 10 miles along the state’s 182 miles of I-95.
The I-95 Economic Assessment was prepared by Cambridge Systematics of Atlanta for $1.6 million. Assisting in the study was an advisory council comprising leaders from key industry associations, economic development and tourism groups, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the No Tolls I-95 Coalition.
Out of five alternatives studied — business as usual, build with no specific funding, tolls, mitigated tolls and alternative funding — the study stated that “mitigated tolls gives rise to the greatest economic benefit locally and statewide.”
According to the study, mitigated tolling would raise an estimated $5.1 billion while decreasing transportation costs by $62.3 billion and adding about 17,000 jobs annually through 2050.
Graham is not the only local legislator with concerns about tolls.
“My concern is that we have to find a way to fund the costs of the interstate, but it has to be done in a way that we don’t penalize commerce or put the burden on our individual citizens,” Sen. Michael Walters said. “I’m still reviewing the study and looking at all the alternatives.”
Mickey Gregory, executive director of the Lumberton Visitors Bureau, contends that reducing the amount of tolls North Carolina residents pay to use the interstate is not going to change the minds of businesses and others who see tolls as an extra burden on those who already do business and reside in one of the state’s most economically depressed counties.
“Even the reduced cost of tolls would still be expensive to those struggling under bad economic conditions,” Gregory said. “It would not just be our businesses that suffer, but also students who use the interstate to get to school and others who use it to get to work.”
According to Gregory, it’s estimated that tolls would lead to about 10,000 fewer vehicles using the highway every day.
He added that projects on I-95 should be funded by revenue already generated by North Carolina highway taxes, including the state gasoline tax, one of the highest in the nation.
“It seems to me that if we are going to do tolling in North Carolina it should be done fairly, not just on I-95, which runs through some of the most economically depressed areas in the state,” she said. “All of our interstates, including I-40 and I-85, should also be tolled. All of the interstates should share in the joy.”
Bo Biggs, a Lumberton businessman and member of the Lumberton Area Chamber of Commerce, said a reduced toll is not going to be enough to change the local chamber’s opposition to tolling.
“At the end of the day, even with mitigated tolling, you still have tolls,” Biggs said.
Supporters of tolling contend that the revenue collected is the only way that long-overdue repairs and widening can be made in a reasonable timeframe to the interstate, which was built between 1956 and 1980. They say widening the highway will allow for quicker commuting times and cheaper travel.
Included in the study was a look at alternative funding, including increasing a number of taxes to pay for the project. Tax increases examined included a 10-year dedicated sales tax, personal income tax, motor fuels tax and the state’s revenue package, including sales tax, highway-use tax and vehicle registration fees.
The DOT is now holding a series of meetings along the I-95 corridor to review the study results with residents, local officials and business and community leaders. A meeting is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at Robeson Community College’s Workforce Development Center in Lumberton.
Graham said the study released earlier this month will be examined closely by members of the General Assembly before any action is taken.
“This will not be something that will just be rubber stamped,” he said, adding that area residents should plan to attend Monday’s meeting.
“I encourage citizens in Robeson County to come out to the meeting, look at the recommendations and express their concerns,” he said.