Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ask not for whom the bridge tolls -- it may toll for thee

Ask not for whom the bridge tolls -- it may toll for thee

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has made clear that he wants his state to begin charging tolls when drivers enter Virginia from North Carolina on I-95 to help pay for safety projects on that heavily traveled road, and N.C. DOT Secretary Gene Conti says he is looking forward to working with Virginia to explore options for improving that interstate route. North Carolina already has tolls on I-95 under consideration, and Conti says a two-year study is looking at through-state traffic as well as local use. McDonnell has asked the Federal Highway Administration if his state can start charging a toll of $1 to $2 for motorists to cross the state line.

That's all well and good, but state Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, says if he'd had his way, North Carolina already would be charging tolls for I-95 use. "I-95 should have been tolled last year," he said during a session with the news media the day before the legislature convened, and "I believe I-95 (tolling) should occur right now -- we need to widen it and create express lanes."

But Basnight also said he does not favor adding tolls to routes that have no other road alternative. Thus, while he supports tolls to pay for a new bridge onto the northern Outer Banks, which has an alternative route, he does not favor tolls to replace the aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet and providing the only road connection to Hatteras Island.

Basnight was not promising new road tolls in the budget changes lawmakers are developing in Raleigh. But with other toll road projects already underway in North Carolina, drivers on I-95 should get used to the idea of paying tolls at the Virginia border before too much longer. And no one should be surprised if toll booths become a regular feature of heavily used and inadequately maintained interstate highways at other border crossings into South Carolina or Virginia. In tight times and with regular budget shortfalls, tolls are going to start looking better to those who fashion the state's biennial budgets, if not to those who will have to shell out.

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