N.C. Department of Transportation officials are examining the possibility of rebuilding Interstate 95 through toll collections under a never-before-used federal pilot program. It will be several years, however, before anyone pays their nickel (or dollar) to drive on the interstate.
I-95 is something of an oddity. It is a major north-south road in a state with an east-west orientation. While the road runs for 182 miles through North Carolina, it serves only one of the state’s dozen largest cities, Fayetteville.
Aside from a 40-mile stretch forming part of the interstate link between Raleigh and Fayetteville, I-95 also does not serve to connect the major population and business centers of the state.
What I-95 does do is serve as a convenient route for motorists driving between the Northeast corridor and Florida. Many of the travelers, however, will spend little time, and money, in North Carolina.
With highway dollars always being in demand, North Carolina has not made improving I-95 a priority. The 1989 law specifying which intrastate road projects would be funded through the Highway Trust Fund contained no provisions for major work on I-95. Likewise, the state’s current Transportation Improvement Program, which lists the state’s road plans for the next seven years, includes no major upgrades on the road.
Still, I-95 will eventually need rebuilding as traffic increases in the future. The road already has a far higher fatality rate than other interstates in the state. I-95’s outdated design, with limited room to accelerate and merge, is a factor as is the long- haul nature of the road’s users.
Federal toll pilot program
The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, passed by Congress in 1998, includes a pilot program, known as section 1216(b), allowing for interstate highways to be converted into toll roads. Under section 1216(b), the Federal Highway Administration can approve up to three such projects, each in a different state.
The agency set a March 31, 1999 deadline for applications. After no states applied, the FHWA changed the approval process to first come, first serve with no set deadline for applications. Aside from North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Michigan, and Virginia have all expressed at least some interest in interstate toll road conversion, though none have yet filed a formal application with the FHWA.
The reason for this limited interest to date is the strict requirements set by the federal government. Section 1216(b) cannot, for example, be used as a means to simply impose a toll at, and only at, the state border.
Before the FHWA will approve an application, a state must demonstrate that the only way the interstate can be reconstructed or rehabilitated is through conversion to a toll road. Existing and future state and federal funding sources must be shown to be inadequate for the work needed.
The FHWA will also figure the age, condition, and intensity of use of the road when determining whether to approve a request as well as the interests of local, regional, and interstate travelers.
In addition, any local metropolitan planning organizations must be consulted about the placement and nature of tolls. The tolls must last for at least 10 years and a state would not receive federal maintenance money for the interstate while it was a toll road.
Conversion of I-95 to a toll road outside the pilot program is likely not a workable option. Such a move would require the consent of Congress and that the state repay all federal money used to build and maintain the portion of interstate that becomes a toll road. While an exact figure is not available, the bill is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Path forward unclear
While section 1216(b) offers a possible means to convert I-95 to a toll road, many uncertainties remain. The N.C. Department of Transportation has contracted for a study to determine the cost of improving I-95 and the potential revenues from and costs of collecting tolls.
Based on the result of this outside report the N.C. DOT may recommend that the state proceed with an application. Such a move would also ultimately require the approval of the General Assembly. The report should be out this summer.
Unknowns also exist on the federal side. The pilot program obviously requires a detailed proposal, which balances off a variety of interests. Given that no state has yet applied, it remains to be seen exactly what the FHWA will find acceptable.
Lowrey is a Charlotte-based associate editor at Carolina Journal.