Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Winston-Salem NC Journal October 8, 2012

Editorial: Costly study for the bad idea of toll roads is not needed
While prospects for operation of more North Carolina toll roads are rightly dimming, the N.C. Department of Transportation is about to waste another $1.6 million assessing the economic impact of tolls on Interstate 95.
DOT should forget that idea. Paying for the $4.4 billion upgrading of the major north-south route through Eastern North Carolina with tolls won’t work and has very little political support.
North Carolina now has only one toll road, an expressway that skirts around Raleigh to the south. But five other toll projects under DOT development — including I-95 — face enormous hurdles in either the courts or the Republican-dominated General Assembly, according to an assessment by The News and Observer.
The Journal editorial board has repeated its arguments against toll roads many times, but our primary opposition lies in the unfairness of double taxation. When motorists pay tolls on the Triangle Expressway, they are paying their second tax for driving on a state road. First they paid their gas tax, then the toll. Motorists on every other road in the state pay only once.
Maybe nowhere in the state is the idea of double taxation more unfair than on I-95, which cuts through the state’s poorest region. Workers who must use I-95 to get to work would be hit with big tolls, and many of those jobs don’t pay all that well in the first place. DOT has ideas for reducing the tolls on commuters, but those ideas don’t solve the problem.
The unfairness extends to businesses, too. Those in the eastern corridor would have to pay tolls for their deliveries and transports while those in other parts of the state would not. That’s not a recipe for bringing economic development to a wide swath of the state that desperately needs it.
In announcing the study, DOT said it wanted to get a better idea of how tolls would impact business. We can save the state right here with the obvious answer: Tolls would hurt.
DOT should save the $1.6 million and drop this whole notion of toll roads, too.

Published May 13, 2012 in the Fayetteville NC Observer 

Op-Ed re: Don’t Drink The Discount Kool-aid on I-95 Tolls
By Chuck Fager

Uh-oh, I said, when I read that some Fayetteville area leaders are ready to sign on with putting tolls on I-95 -- as long as us locals can get a "discount."

Memo to Commissioner Jimmy Keefe, state Reps. Rick Glazier, Elmer Floyd and other solons: Don't go there! That's like saying, "It'll be okay for Pandora to open her box, just halfway.” Or, “We’ll let the fox into the henhouse, but only halfway . . .”

Bad idea. Very bad idea.

To see why, let's look at some numbers: The initial toll rates are supposed to be $20 each way, border to border. Suppose us locals get a 50 per cent discount; $10 each way.

It sounds better. But that would just be an opener – as in, opening a big can of worms.

The toll plan has a built-in inflation escalator, which would jack up the initial tolls by billions of dollars. In fact, the plan figures to spend about $12 billion on the highway -- but expects to take in at least $30 billion in toll revenue.

Thirty billion. Out of our pockets.

Discount that, folks, if you can.

It's been rightly said that tolls on I-95 will amount to a heavy tax on the citizens of the I-95 corridor. The planners just don't want to call it that.

And why do they plan to take in $30 billion if the road work will “only” cost $12 billion?

Here's where it gets very interesting. Because a search for answers led me to study what's happened to other toll roads. And the answer that popped up again and again was simple, and shocking:

The toll roads get sold off, usually to foreign corporations.

That's where all that extra toll (tax) revenue will most likely go: to some overseas companies' bottom line.

Think I'm kidding? Check out the Indiana Turnpike (part of Interstate 90): it was sold in 2005 to a joint venture from Australia and Spain. Or the South Bay Expressway in San Diego; same deal.

It was easy enough to do. After all, putting tolls on a freeway “monetizes” the road. That means it can be bought and sold, just like your mortgage.

Did somebody say "mortgage"? Wasn't there a lot of trouble about bad mortgages recently?

Funny thing: the foreign companies “bought” these US roads with borrowed money -- that is, mortgages. But then the Southwest Expressway in San Diego went bust. And the Indiana Turnpike’s new owners are teetering on the edge. Lots of other toll road deals have had to be, um, “renegotiated” to avoid bankruptcy.

But who's on the hook if such a deal goes sour? Repeat after me: we are. Carolina taxpayers.

How do these fiascoes happen?

The basics are simple: the promoters claimed to know the future. But in fact, they didn’t. Their crystal balls were a dud.

The road planners and corporations all figured American drivers would never stop crowding their lanes and dropping ever more dollars into their toll boxes.

Didn’t happen. Traffic – and toll revenue – went down, not up. The companies raised tolls repeatedly, to cover the shortfall. Didn’t work.

Looking back, it seems obvious: when the crash threw millions out of work, they quit commuting. Then $4 gas made lots of us cut back on car trips; and lots more drivers, royally ticked off by ever-rising tolls, stayed off those roads entirely. Ah, 20-20 hindsight.

But that’s all over, right? Tomorrow is another day, right? And NCDOT is confident their new crystal balls are way better.

Well, maybe they can’t tell us if it will rain tomorrow. But they’re confident they know what traffic on I-95 will be, twenty, even thirty years from now.

Really? There’s some very colorful Sandhills slang for such ideas. I’ll stick with one from my Yankee mother: malarkey.

And add an anguished appeal to our local politicos: Glazier, Keefe, Meredith, Floyd, and all the others, from both parties (I’m looking at you, Senators Hagan and Burr):

Please. Put down that cup of discount Kool-aid, now. Next, step away from that I-95 tolls can of worms. Shove it back on the shelf. Way back.

And then tell NCDOT to go back too: back to the drawing boards. Don’t let them turn Interstate 95, our lifeline, into the road to disaster.

Pandora, shut that box, before it’s too late!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Great Blog Post from Lumberton: No Tolls!

A blogger from Robeson County, the southernmost of the eight that I-95 traverses, has laid out his case for keeping I-95 toll free. Barney Bornn blogs at "The Incompleat Curmudgeon," and he's got it right:

I’m not aware of any studies on the economic impact of the I-95 project, but a few things seem clear. People and shippers will do what they can to avoid the tolls, and in North Carolina route 301 is parallel to I-95 for much of its length. Elsewhere, there are local roads that can expect increased traffic, heavier vehicles, and increased maintenance costs. Neither 301 nor the local roads are designed for the kind of traffic they are likely to get. High volume traffic mixed with shoppers, pedestrians, and kids on bicycles would mean more accidents: adding a toll in money to I-95 would add a toll in blood to other roads.
Barney also hits the target with his conclusion:

I’ve sent messages like this one to officials at the Federal, State, County, and City levels. If you’re a resident of North Carolina I’d appreciate your writing your elected officials. We can defeat this plan!

We sure can.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Public Officials Are lining up AGAINST Tolls

As of March 9, three public officials and one county commission have declared their opposition to told on I-95. Rep Renee Ellmers is first out of the box to take steps to stop the plan to put tolls on I-95 in NC. “My constituents in these areas are already facing hard times and now we’ve increased their gas tax and we’re going to be adding another tax on them to go to and from work — to and from their daily lives,” said Ellmers. “I just think that’s incredibly-- here's a video report

Ellmers is not alone, however. The Johnston County Commission unanimously adopted an anti-toll resolution on March 5. (The text is on this blog in a separate post; the official record is here.  )

Other public officials are also speaking up. Jimmy Keefe, a member of the Cumberland County Commission, published a column opposing the tolls. And William David Ayers, Town Commissioner for St. Pauls NC, took to the Letters column of the Fayetteville Observer on March 9.  Here's what he wrote:

Being from a small town on Interstate 95, the topic of tolls is inflammatory. St. Pauls has suffered economically with loss of industry. The town now counts on the interstate as its 21st century industry.
St. Pauls has two underdeveloped exits on I-95 and an adjacent certified industrial site. I believe the tolls now jeopardize a bright future centered on development of those sites.
The DOT stated in The Fayetteville Observer that upgrades to I-95 cost $4.4 billion and would take 60 years with existing funds, leaving no money for other roads. Let's take a closer look. One cent in gasoline tax equals $50 million in revenue, according to the DOT. Therefore the 39.5 cent per gallon tax generates roughly $2 billion a year for roads. Add in diesel taxes, road use taxes and other revenue - the total generated has to be well over $2.5 billion.
How to pay for upgrades? Using only the 4.5 cent gasoline tax increase from this year, $225 million would be generated. Dividing the $4.4 billion by $225 million, it would take almost 20 years to pay for upgrades to I-95. Doubling that to 9 cents from the current 39.5 cent per gallon gasoline tax, we could pay for the upgrades in 10 years.
Can't the DOT be run on $1.5 billion from the remaining 30.5 cents per gallon gas tax and additional revenues?
I oppose this toll and the economic impact it will have on small towns. 
William David Ayers, town commissioner, St. Pauls
 We predict there will be more public officials joining this chorus of sensible opposition.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Throw In The Towel on Our Economic Future? Cumberland County Commissioner Says NO To Tolls, Too

From the Fayetteville Nc Observer Feb. 27, 2012

Op-ed: Keefe - Tolls may harm communities
Jimmy Keefe
The N.C. Department of Transportation's move to turn Interstate 95 into a toll road strikes me as a case of short-term thinking and not truly looking at the global array of solutions to our economic crisis.
Jimmy Keefe
It is a narrow perspective of how the DOT may eliminate its fiscal responsibility to maintain the highways without taking into consideration unintended consequences.
But the butterfly effect of toll roads on Cumberland County, its industry and citizens will be felt every day in the future, a constant reminder of why we cannot break out of the tar pit of financial burden created by government on the backs of citizens and industry.
Cumberland is the most populous county on I-95 in North Carolina that will be affected by this decision. Tolls will have a negative impact on our ability to recruit new business and industry. Our greatest asset and selling tool is proximity to I-95. This toll initiative would largely negate any advantage we have in the global market.
It will not matter how good our schools are, how low our tax rate is, how vibrant our arts and culture programs are. Industry will ultimately make decisions based on the cost of doing business. If every shipment moving on I-95 will have to pay a toll, if every worker has to pay a toll to come to work and every potential customer or visitor has to pay a toll to arrive at his or her destination in Cumberland County, we might as well throw in the towel on economic development, recruitment and tourism.

It's Unanimous: Johnston County Commissioners Say NO to 95 Tolls

On March 5, 2012 the Johnston County NC Commissioners unanimously adopted the following resolution:

WHEREAS, In January of 2012 the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) released the I-95 Corridor Planning & Finance Study identifying tolling as the most feasible means for funding future improvements of Interstate 95 in North Carolina; and

WHEREAS, Prior to the release of the I-95 Study, the NCDOT submitted an application to the FederalHighway Administration requesting approval to implement tolling on the Interstate 95 Corridor under the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program; and

WHEREAS, Interstate 95 is a primary transportation artery in Johnston County and a major catalyst for tourism and economic development; and

WHEREAS, Significant negative impacts for communities and businesses that depend on Interstate 95 travelers for their livelihood could occur due to travelers diverting to alternate roads to avoid tolls; and