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.

Large manufacturing companies will recruit personnel from all over our region. If a worker has to commute to a company in Cumberland County from another county, and that person uses I-95 to get to work, it could easily cost that person up to $100 extra per month, or $1,200 a year just to get to work. This is a high cost to an economically depressed area and would surely be a consideration for any new industry with thoughts of locating here.
I have heard my fellow commissioners speak many times of our commitment to bringing good-paying jobs to our area. I don't think any of us envisioned that a large part of these salaries would be going to the state to maintain the roads.
North Carolinians pay one of the highest gas taxes in the nation to maintain our road systems. These tolls will be in addition to these taxes. I have heard it said that this will largely be a passing-through toll for people from other states using I-95. Although I understand the argument, I'm not sure I'm comfortable charging a family - with parents who probably saved responsibly all year to take their kids to Disney World or Myrtle Beach - $20 each way just to drive on our portion of I-95. Many of them will already be filling up their gas tanks in North Carolina, paying a gas tax, eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and stopping along the way to enjoy the scenic beauty of our state.
The reality of these toll roads is they will primarily be used and paid for by taxpayers of North Carolina.
Recently, we lost bids for two major industries that could have brought in excess of 2,000 high-paying jobs with solid benefits.
The industries decided it would be more profitable for them to locate elsewhere because of infrastructure issues not addressed earlier in North Carolina. I would ask anyone in the economic development field whether toll roads would be an advantage or disadvantage to our area. The answer is clear. I am surprised that every economic developer has not vigorously opposed this initiative.
There is much concern that many daily drivers of I-95 will take other roads to bypass the tolls. This will cause increased traffic and require additional enforcement and maintenance on our rural roadways.
The DOT says funding generated by tolls would help maintain I-95 and increase capacity up to eight lanes in some places. I-95 is not where traffic lanes need to be increased. If you were to travel across the state, you would clearly see that the traffic congestion on the interstate highway system is on the large highway systems and beltways in Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte. I am sure many members of the General Assembly in areas not affected by this proposal will think it is a good additional source of revenue and will back the initiative. It is not a stretch to see in the future that the revenue generated from these tolls in Robeson, Cumberland, Harnett, Sampson and Johnston counties, and the other counties on the corridor, could be diverted to other projects.
I understand that the revenue will be dedicated to I-95 initially, but, over time, funds in all forms of government rarely are used for their initial intended purposes. One must only look back at the state lottery and its initial intentions and its current use.
I would encourage all commissioners in counties on the I-95 corridor to take a hard look at the benefits and consequences of toll roads going through their communities.
These comments represent only my opinion as one county commissioner and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the entire board.
Jimmy Keefe is a member of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, serving District 2. He is a former member of the Fayetteville City Council and a Fayetteville businessman.

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