LUMBERTON — A new coalition of individuals, businesses, and municipal and county government representatives is moving to stop tolls from being implemented on North Carolina’s stretch of Interstate 95, but Robeson County is not yet on board.
The No Tolls on I95 Coalition, a group representing the seven counties along the I-95 corridor, met Tuesday in Smithfield to plan strategies for keeping the North Carolina Department of Transportation from using tolls to pay an estimated $4.4 billion in improvements and construction costs along North Carolina’s 182 miles of the interstate that runs from South Carolina to Virginia.
‘The purpose of the meeting in Smithfield is to build the coalition border to border so we have one consistent message to our leaders,” Anitra Collins, one of the organization’s leaders in Roanoke Rapids, told the Smithfield Herald newspaper.
According to Bob Dixon, vice president of the Johnston County Tourism Authority, between 35 and 40 representatives of tourism, chambers of commerce, economic development, small business and local government attended Tuesday’s meeting in Smithfield. He said that the only two counties along the I-95 corridor not represented at the meeting were Robeson and Harnett.
According to coalition representatives, they are objecting to tolls on I-95 because:
— Tolls will result in higher costs of goods and services.
— Congestion of secondary roads will result as drivers seek other routes to avoid the tolls.
— There is potential for a loss of business to those businesses located along the interstate. Job creation would also be stifled.
— North Carolinians already pay one of the nation’s highest gas taxes. This money is already supposed to be used for highway maintenance.
— Tolling results in a burden on those who live and work in Eastern North Carolina, one of the most economically distressed regions in the state.
As of Saturday, the coalition’s website — notollsi95.com— said that 3,880 signatures have already been collected on a petition opposing the tolls. The petition calls for the state DOT to conduct a “comprehensive study of the economic impacts of tolling for the citizens, businesses and communities along the Interstate 95 corridor.”
Although Robeson County was not represented at the coalition’s recent meeting, opposition throughout the county is on the rise. The town boards in Fairmont and St. Pauls have passed resolutions against tolling, while seven members of the Lumberton City Council have signed a letter to the state DOT and state and federal representatives opposing the plan.
Mickey Gregory, executive director of the Lumberton Visitors Bureau, said that the board of the Lumberton Tourism Development Authority has briefly discussed tolling and the efforts of the newly formed coalition. The issue will be discussed again at the board’s meeting on May 23, she said.
Using tolls to pay for widening and making improvements to North Carolina’s section of I-95 is recommended in a state-commissioned study — the I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study — as the best way to pay for the project. The state is responsible for 10 percent, or $440 million, of the total $4.4 billion in estimated highway improvements.
The study proposes two toll sites in Robeson County — at mile-marker 12 near U.S. 74, and between mile-marker 28 and 31 at St. Pauls. Overall there would be nine sites located along North Carolina’s section of I-95.
It is estimated that motorists would have to pay about $20 in tolls to travel the entire length of the interstate in North Carolina. Truckers would have to pay higher tolls.
The study calls for construction of Phase I to begin in 2016 and end sometime in 2019; it would include a 61-mile stretch of the interstate from mile-marker 20 in Lumberton to mile-marker 81 at the U.S. 40/I-95 interchange in Johnston County. The work would include widening the 50 miles from mile-marker 31 to 81 to eight lanes, with the remaining sections being widened to six lanes.
The tolling would begin at the end of Phase I.
In order to toll an existing highway, the state DOT must first receive federal approval. U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, of Lumberton, said in March that congressional delegates from North Carolina are joining together in an effort to stop federal approval of the state’s request to toll I-95.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.