Dispute Over I-95 Tolls Heats Up

August 24th, 2012

The dispute over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposal to toll Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border is getting hotter.

Dozens of local governments, regional governmental and economic development bodies have now voiced opposition to the plan. And just last week, Emporia’s mayor and a city councilman grilled the governor on statewide radio about plans to toll a rural part of the state that is economically struggling.

Emporia Mayor Samuel Adams and Councilman Jim Saunders told McDonnell on WRVA-AM that instead of harming a rural area of the state with tolls, the state could marginally raise the gasoline tax, unchanged at 17½ cents since 1986, to produce more revenue.

“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.

The Richmond Times Dispatch (RTD) also came out in opposition to the plan in its recent editorial “Tolls: Mr. Inefficiency.” “The administration is moving forward with a plan to put tolls on I-95 near the North Carolina border,” the Dispatch wrote. “The aim — raising money for transportation — is admirable. The means are not.”

The newspaper also advocated raising the gasoline tax by one penny to generate $50 million a year.

Tolling I-95 Will Further Virginia’s Transportation Problems; Not Solve Them

August 10th, 2012

In a recent commentary in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, columnist Jeff Schapiro outlines the growing opposition to tolls on I-95.  It’s worth noting that opposition is growing for good reason.  If Governor McDonnell puts tolls on I-95 and continues his efforts to turn Virginia into the “Tolled Dominion” the following will happen:

•    Localities along the I-95 corridor in Virginia will be forced to spend millions of dollars more for local road repairs after 80,000 pound trucks and increased car traffic attempt to avoid the toll and divert from the interstate onto local roads.
•    Those in localities surrounding the toll will face increased safety risks due to the traffic diversion.
•    Those living along I-85, I-81 and 301 should expect to see significantly greater truck and car traffic volumes as a result of tolls on I-95.
•    Businesses along I-95 will be put at a competitive disadvantage compared to competitors along other interstates as a result of this government policy that selects winners and losers.  It will put Virginia’s business-friendly reputation at risk and cost the Commonwealth jobs.
Tolls are taxes plain and simple. Moreover, tolls are the most inefficient method of taxation.  Virginia needs to look at all of their options for collecting revenue for transportation, but tolls on I-95 are an option that lacks common sense.

VDOT has forecasted that 38% of toll revenue collected in the first six years will be lost to pay for construction, maintenance and operations of collection compared to less than 1% collection cost associated with the fuel tax collected at the wholesale level. In other words, when $1 million in toll revenue is collected, $380,000 ends up not going toward transportation improvements. With the fuel tax, however, for every $1 million collected in fuel tax, only $10,000 is lost to administrative costs.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch commentary points in part to more fuel efficient cars as the reason for the infrastructure funding shortage that Virginia is facing; however, the fact that the state excise tax on fuel has failed to keep pace with rising inflation and increased construction costs is a better culprit.  The problem is that the purchasing power of the fuel tax has fallen off considerably. That explains Mr. Schapiro’s comment that Virginia drivers are basically paying a fuel tax that is .08 cents less than it was in 1986. Think of it this way, if someone was to earn a salary in 1986 and that salary had not been adjusted since, the individual’s salary would effectively be much less now than it was in 1986 because the cost of everything else has increased considerably since then.

Raising revenue for transportation is critical to the economic vitality of the Commonwealth, but tolling I-95 will only serve to further Virginia’s transportation problems, not solve them.

Opposition Continues to Grow Against Va. and N.C. I-95 Tolling Plans

August 9th, 2012

Opposition continues to grow against the Virginia and North Carolina Departments of Transportation’s plans to toll Interstate 95 as a means of generating revenue for state infrastructure projects.

Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s persistence in tolling is galvanizing an increasing number of opponents, according to the Virginia Pilot. And Hanover County and the Town Council of Dumfries, in Northern Virginia, recently joined the fight against the toll plan.

A Virginia Village Voice editorial last week reported that tolling I-95 offers no redeeming qualities for the citizens of Emporia, Greensville or Sussex yet ultimately will deliver “serious negative blows” to local communities. The proposal does not have the approval of any local official, the newspaper said, nor will it create new roadways, leverage unique funding pools or ease commuter congestion.

Those opposed to the tolling plans can voice their opposition by signing the online petition or liking the Virginia and North Carolina Facebook pages.  Already, more than 2,200 people have signed their names against Virginia’s tolling plan.

Expressing Opposition to I-95 Tolls Via Online Petition and Facebook

July 26th, 2012

Residents and business owners who oppose the Virginia and North Carolina state Departments of Transportation’s plans to toll Interstate 95 now have an opportunity to express their disagreement by signing an online petition and joining a new Facebook page .

Those seeking to express their opposition to state DOT tolling initiatives now can sign an online petition at www.virginiatollfree95.com.  They also can “like” the Virginia campaign’s Facebook page. A similar online community, No Tolls I95, is in place for North Carolina, and those opposed to the tolls are invited to join that effort on Facebook.

The website, petition and Facebook pages are an opportunity for Virginia and North Carolina residents, business owners and operators to make their voices heard.

In Virginia, the Department of Transportation has announced plans to construct a toll facility on I-95 in Sussex County, Va. Initially, the tolls are estimated to be $4 for cars and $12 for tractor trailers, and would be charged on north and southbound vehicles.

North Carolina’s DOT has yet to release its plan for toll facilities but is thought to include multiple locations along the corridor.

Dale Bennett, President of the Virginia Trucking Association remarked, “Tolls on I-95 are the most inefficient way to collect revenue for transportation.  They will create road congestion, divert traffic to roads less suited to handle more cars and trucks.”

Ohio Residents and Business Owners Say Commercial Rest Areas a Bad Idea

June 27th, 2012

The residents and business owners of Ohio’s Hocking County know a bad idea when they see it.

The Ohio Department of Transportation held a public meeting at the Hocking College Energy Institute early this week to discuss its plan to explore the commercial development of certain rest areas.

Citizens and business owners reportedly expressed strong criticism of the plan, including its impact on tourism, local business, the environment and traffic.

According to an article that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, meeting attendees are especially worried that shops and restaurants at the rest stops could hurt nearby businesses.

Furthermore, Executive Director of Hocking Hills Tourism Association Karen Raymore said commercializing the rest areas would be extremely detrimental to the visitors, according to an article published on NPR.

The irony is, ODOT doesn’t seem to care what its residents have to say.

Despite claims that ODOT plans to listen to all concerns as its holds a series of public meetings statewide, officials plan to hold a meeting June 28 in Columbus to accept bids from possible businesses to operate commercial rest areas.

The people of Ohio have spoken and they don’t want commercial rest areas.

ODOT should listen to what its voting constituents have to say and act accordingly.

Tolls Bad for Business

June 26th, 2012

New details continue to emerge in Virginia about plans to toll Interstate-95 under a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) pilot program.

But as Virginia considers how best to grease its own pockets, the state is ignoring the ill effects that tolls will rain down on businesses operating along the interstate.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) said recently in public meetings that it is currently seeking to install one tolling collection site in Sussex County between exits 20 and 24. VDOT said the state thinks it can generate $155 million in tolls in the first six years by charging $4 for cars and about $12 for trucks. To mitigate toll diversion, the state said it plans to add additional toll booths at exits 17, 20, 24, and 31. VDOT said it would charge $2 for cars, and about $6 for trucks both exiting and entering the I-95 corridor.

Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) met last week in Richmond to discuss VDOT’s plan.

Virginia lawmakers should take note that tolling interstates makes it less attractive for highway users to exit the interstate and patronize the businesses that create a local tax base for communities and employ Virginia residents.

And as a significant number of drivers divert onto secondary roads to avoid the tolls, businesses that invested top dollar for their properties based on proximity to the highway will see big declines in sales.

As interstate businesses take a hit on business, it ultimately hurts local governments, too, which depend on their tax revenues.

Virginia should abandon its plan to toll Interstate-95 and instead focus on helping private businesses thrive.

ODOT Should Compare Apples to Apples

June 5th, 2012

In its latest bid to raise funds for state transportation projects, the Ohio Department of Transportation is seeking to commercialize non-interstate rest areas.

ODOT thinks that because the state generates between $4 million and $5 million dollars annually from privately operated service plazas on the Ohio Turnpike that it can do the same on other roads.

But ODOT is comparing apples and oranges.

Commercialized rest areas on the Ohio Turnpike operate from an advantaged location that other private businesses are barred from accessing. As a result, ODOT’s commercial rest areas on the Turnpike enjoy the privilege of high traffic volumes and zero competition.

Furthermore, since private businesses already are meeting the needs of the traveling public, putting the state in direct competition with them will further carve up the limited dollars spent at businesses already struggling against lower traffic counts.

Considering these two factors, Ohio is unlikely to generate anywhere near $4 million by commercializing rest areas along non-interstates.
ODOT recently floated its idea to more than 30 businesses and affiliated trade groups when it issued a Request for Information.

In comments filed with the agency, NATSO, which represents truckstops and travel plazas nationwide, said it understands the significant budgetary challenges facing the agency but strongly opposes the commercialization of rest areas.

“Commercializing rest areas and allowing states to get in the business of selling food and fuel may seem like an easy way for the state DOT to generate revenue,” NATSO wrote. “But in reality, it represents government intrusion into the private sector.”

ODOT should reconsider its latest idea and seek alternative solutions that don’t jeopardize existing private businesses for little or nothing in return.

Ohio DOT Intrudes on the Private Sector

May 22nd, 2012

Despite the Senate’s overwhelming rejection of Senator Portman’s Amendment to the highway bill, Ohio Transportation officials continue to pursue commercial rest areas as a means of generating revenue for the state.

Most recently, ODOT issued a request for information (RFI) seeking input on an upcoming proposal to commercialize non-interstate rest areas across the state.

In its RFI, ODOT said it would seek to construct service plazas at 26 non-interstate rest areas to provide fuel, food, lodging and other travel-related services. ODOT plans to have all the plazas developed, financed and operated through a lease agreement.

In an interview with the “Cleveland Plain Dealer,” scheduled to appear soon, NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings said ODOT’s proposal to construct commercial rest areas along non-interstate routes represents yet another ill-conceived attempt by the state to compete with small-town businesses, threatening jobs and local tax dollars, as a way to fix state budget shortfalls.

“State financial budget problems are not a burden that should be transferred to local business owners and local communities,” Mullings said. “Yet this is exactly what the Ohio Department of Transportation is planning to do.”

Just last month the United States Senate rejected efforts to commercialize interstate rest areas. The amendment by Ohio Senator Rob Portman was defeated 86-12.

ODOT’s new plan isn’t any different than the old plan. It represents nothing more than government intrusion into the private sector at the expense of small business, the jobs they provide and the money they pour into their local towns.

California Rest Area Commercialization Bill Defeated

May 1st, 2012

California Assemblyman Ben Hueso’s bill to commercialize the state’s rest areas and pursue a waiver to the federal prohibition on the sale of commercial services on the interstate right-of-way failed last week in committee, marking a major victory for California’s fuel retailers. During the Assembly’s Transportation Committee hearing, the bill AB 2485 garnered only 6 “aye” votes. Eight were needed for the bill to pass from the committee.

The California Independent Oil Marketers Association (CIOMA), the California Council of the Blind and a national highway property alliance testified against the measure, saying it would cannibalize jobs and customers from privately owned, existing highway enterprises.

Calls from NATSO truckstops and travel plazas also helped to defeat this legislation.

California Bill Would Kill Small Business

April 2nd, 2012

Because the California Department of Transportation is short on cash, Assemblyman Ben Hueso is suggesting that the state should set up shop along the interstate, jeopardizing 12,852 businesses that operate along the interstate employing more than 188,000 state residents.

Assemblyman Hueso fails to recognize the tremendous advantage that a concessionaire offering food and fuel at the rest area would have over the businesses at the exit. As any fuel retailer, convenience store operator or fast food franchisee knows, location is one of the primary drivers of customer traffic. Under Hueso’s plan, the state and their rest area concessions contractor would be the winners. The business people who paid top dollar for their properties at the exit interchanges would be the big losers as the traffic is siphoned away from the exits to the shoulder of the interstate.

A recent study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute confirmed that gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores and truckstops would lose up to 46 percent of their sales if commercial rest areas were permitted. California is risking thousands of businesses and jobs to save $13 million, which represents just 0.12 percent of California’s $11 billion transportation budget and .009 percent of the overall state budget.

Furthermore, California would be robbing Peter to pay Paul by transferring local tax revenues to state coffers. California has said that it could collect $3 million in lease payments and $7.5 million in sales tax revenues for the state. Existing businesses pump nearly $64 million in local tax revenues into their communities to pay for schools, fire and police departments and other local services — all of which would be lost as existing small businesses fail.

Assemblyman Hueso has said that commercial rest areas are a “good opportunity to do a number of things.” Killing businesses and jobs hardly seems like a good idea.