RICHMOND, Va. — The simmering dispute over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to levy tolls for upgrades on Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border got hotter on statewide radio Thursday as Emporia’s mayor and a city councilman grilled the governor.
McDonnell said he will inquire about placing tolls elsewhere along the Virginia portion of the primary East Coast traffic artery after Emporia Mayor Samuel Adams and Councilman Jim Saunders told McDonnell on WRVA-AM the tolls would harm a rural area of the state that is economically struggling.
“I just wonder why the governor and his staff are trying to isolate one of the poorest areas of the state of Virginia — the people as well as the governments,” Adams asked on McDonnell’s monthly call-in program on the Virginia News Network and its flagship station in Richmond.
McDonnell and an allied Republican-ruled General Assembly agreed to tolling as a way to generate money for overdue upgrades, expansion and upkeep of I-95 as an alternative to fuel tax increases, which lawmakers over the years have repeatedly shot down.
Opposition, however, has grown from a handful of dissenting voices to a chorus that now includes dozens of local governments, regional governmental and economic development bodies in the largely agricultural area south of Richmond toward the Carolina border. The response has been similar in North Carolina, where tolls are being considered as a way to raise $440 million of the state’s share of $4.4 billion in enhancements to the major highway.
The Virginia tolling proposal has also put U.S. Rep J. Randy Forbes, whose 4th District spans most of the area, in the awkward position of battling the administration of a fellow Republican over its plans to implement the tolls.
Saunders, whose call in to the radio show came immediately after Adams’, asked McDonnell why Virginia was forcing a narrow segment of its population — people in the rural Southside region who would have to pay the tolls to travel to work, school or for other reasons — to bear a disproportionate share of the burden when the state’s gasoline tax, unchanged at 17½ cents since 1986, could be raised marginally, produce more revenue and share the burden statewide.
He said 40 percent of the gas purchased along the interstate comes from out-of-state motorists, and noted that North Carolina’s fuel tax was nearly 20 cents per gallon higher than Virginia’s.
“We could raise about $325 million a year, based on numbers I’ve run, versus $30 (million) to $35 million on the tolls,” Saunders said. “So if we’re going to grab 40 percent of that money from out of state, why wouldn’t we look at sharing the pain across the entire state?”
McDonnell fumbled momentarily for a response, saying that the majority of those who would pay the tolls would be from other states “or people who are going back and forth in Virginia from point to point.”
“There are a handful of ways to pay for infrastructure. It’s bonds, it’s taxes, it’s general fund money, it’s tolls, it’s public-private partnerships, it’s the new Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank I set up. Those are the limits. I can tell you a gas tax increases have been regularly rejected in the General Assembly by both houses. They are less popular than tolls,” he said.
McDonnell himself, however, pledged as a candidate in 2009 and repeatedly since not to increase general taxes for transportation projects.
Adams questioned why the proposed tolling is near Emporia, where only 35,000 cars daily use I-95, instead of Caroline County north of Richmond, where 85,000 vehicles pass daily.
McDonnell acknowledged Adams’ point, saying he would ask Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton whether the Virginia Department of Transportation’s recommendation to locate the tolls near Sussex was locked in.