New plan could bring tolls to VA interstates

By NBC12 WWBT Richmond

There's a new push to charge tolls on Virginia's free interstates, and it's coming straight from the White House. Federal funding for Virginia highways is set to expire at the end of May.

Part of President Barack Obama's solution is to open all of Virginia's interstates to tolls.

The state's massive fund that fixes highways is about to run out of money, with a deadline at the end of the month. If that happens, with short-term band-aids used up by the fall, 43,000 construction jobs in Virginia are at risk, and 400 state projects will be put on hold or reassessed.

"Tolling existing interstate lanes, which drivers already pay for through their tax dollars, is the worst possible option for paying for roads and for raising road revenue," said Julian Walker with the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, which is made up of business owners like Rex Davis, who oppose the idea.

"You almost feel like you're a target of some sort," Davis said, and he says that's because he owns two travel centers -- one on Interstate 95 and one on I-85 south of Richmond. Tampering with tolls, he says, would mean his customers would pay more, so his employees could make a living. "We'll have to pay employees more to be able to attract and retain a workforce. If we don't pay that person more to come and work with us, that has to bear the burden of the toll, then that person may work an extra half an hour to an hour a day just to make enough money to pay the toll and come back and forth to work," he said.

Right now, tolls are flat-out banned on existing interstate lanes, but the Grow America Act 2.0, now in Congress, will change that. It's a $500 million plan, and it lifts a huge barrier if it passes. Right now, to toll an interstate, you need to build new lanes. That's how we have tolls on I-95 with the new express lanes near Washington, D.C. But if the president gets his way, it fast-tracks states' powers to toll any interstate.

We asked critics, if not tolling, how do we raise billions of dollars? The response: look at Virginia, raising its gas tax early this year, and the sales tax before then. But in response to a Washington Post article, Parker Williams, Xerox's senior vice president of transportation solutions, says tolling expansion has "incredible promise," especially with the reduced congestion and customer convenience of all electronic tolling. Walker says e-tolling has its hiccups too, and people could still clog neighborhood roads to avoid them. "That means the police officer, the fire fighter, the rescue worker, the ambulance driver, all those people are delayed perhaps by minutes, perhaps by seconds. But for critical amounts of time that could be the difference for someone who is in need of emergency response work," he said.

About the president's proposal, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he doesn't support tolling existing interstate lanes.

For now, the plan sits in Congress, with time running out to find a fix that won't take a toll on family funds and businesses' bottom lines.