There has been no better friend to Robeson County and Lumberton than Interstate 95.
The highway, which runs from Canada to the tip of Florida, is the single reason why Robeson County and its county seat have not gone the way of Scotland County and Laurinburg. The loss of farm and manufacturing jobs that sustained this county for decades has been debilitating, but the money I-95 travelers leave here during their pit stops has buoyed the tourism industry, putting people to work in the food, lodging and retail industries.
Those jobs, sadly, are poorly paid with lousy or no benefits, which help explain our No. 1 ranking in the state in poverty. If I-95 didn’t have us pinned down, Robeson County would have been blown away by the recessions of 2001 and 2008.
But I-95 is beginning to show its age. Kristine O’Connor, a planning engineer and project manager with state Department of Transportation, says there have been no “significant repairs” to I-95 since the highway was built.
A $6.1 million study is recommending $4.4 billion of work to the highway in North Carolina alone, including widening to six and eight lanes. Our cash-strapped state will be on the hook for 10 percent of that bill, or $440 million. The work, as now presented, wouldn’t begin until 2016.
Our gasoline tax, among the highest in the country, has generated sufficient revenue to earn North Carolina the compliment of being called the Good Roads State. Tolls are being floated as a revenue source for the I-95 work, a fair proposal because it collects coins from the users of the highway. But before that can happen, North Carolina must get federal permission to enact tolls on existing roads.
The current proposal is for $19.20 worth of tolls for a motorist who travels the entire 182-mile stretch of I-95 in North Carolina, but a disproportionate amount of that would be collected along the 50-mile stretch from St. Pauls to Interstate 40 in Johnston County, which would be widened to eight lanes. That is the preferred route for Robesonians who are heading to Raleigh, our capital, and areas westward in the stomach of our state. So a trip to Duke Medical Center or to see your favorite college team compete athletically would get more expensive — or steer travelers to more clumsy routes through Hoke, Moore, Lee and Pitt counties.
On Feb. 7 at Robeson Community College, there will be a public hearing held on recommendations for improvements to I-95 and how they will be funded. Officials with the DOT are encouraging participation.
What is eventually decided will affect everyone who lives in this county, so the hearing should be well-attended. Speak now — or don’t complain later about highway robbery.