LUMBERTON — County residents will have the opportunity early next month to tell the state Department of Transportation what they think about tolls being charged on Interstate 95 to fund $4.4 billion in road improvements along the 182 miles of the highway that runs from South Carolina to Virginia.
Tolling is the means recommended for funding the improvements that are included in a state-commissioned study released Thursday. A hearing on the study’s recommendations, the first of seven to be held along the I-95 corridor, is slated for Feb. 7 at Robeson Community College.
Kristine O’Connor, a planning engineer and project manager with DOT, said Friday that public input is important in the DOT’s plans for the I-95 improvements.
“We care about what people think. It’s important to us,” she said. “We have been working on this project for two and a half years, and from the beginning of the project in 2009 we have been holding public workshops, meeting with local officials and making little presentations to any group that asks us to. We want to know people’s thoughts on what we plan to do and what they think of financing options.”
O’Connor said that there have been no “significant repairs” to I-95 since the highway was built.
“If we want to grow economically, we have to make sure that I-95 is viable,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we live in the economic climate that we do today. Tolling is the only way that the needed improvements can be made to I-95 within a feasible amount of time.”
O’Connor said that the recommendations in the study will result in “fairly significant” improvements to the section of I-95 in Robeson County.
“The question is how do we pay for all the improvements,” she said. “Currently, North Carolina does not have the authority to toll (existing highways). The state has applied to the federal government to participate in a pilot program that would permit tolling.”
According to the $6.1 million I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study submitted to the state earlier this month, bridges will have to be raised, other bridges rebuilt, interchanges improved to current safety standards, and the entire length of the highway widened. The state will fund about 10 percent of the project, with bonds paying for the first of two phases of the project and tolls paying for the second phase.
According to the study, construction on Phase I — a 61-mile stretch of the interstate from mile marker 20 in Robeson County to mile marker 81 at the U.S. 40/I-95 interchange in Johnston County — would begin in 2016 and end sometime in 2019. The work would include widening 50 miles from marker 31 to marker 81 to eight lanes, with the remaining sections being widened to six lanes.
Phase II would get underway after the first phase is complete, according to the study, with electronic tolling beginning along the entire stretch of North Carolina’s part of the interstate beginning at the completion of Phase 1. Travel on Phase 1 highway would cost 19.2 cents a mile, and the rest of the North Carolina section of the interstate being tolled at about 6.4 cents a mile. Those driving the entire stretch would pay about $19.20.
The plan allows for some areas of the interstate to be traveled free, depending on where a vehicle enters and exits the highway.
O’Connor said that if the federal government does not allow the state to be part of the pilot program that allows existing highways to be tolled, the proposed improvements would not be done anytime soon because of lack of funding.
Greg Burns, a DOT division engineer in Fayetteville, said he is aware of the concerns of people about paying tolls.
“It’s a huge cost to make these improvements,” he said. “But these improvements have to be done, and by tolling everybody using the interstate will be paying for the improvements.”
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.