The Federal Highway Administration has chosen North Carolina as the last of three states eligible to place tolls on interstates under a federal pilot program, joining Virginia and Missouri.
Usually, states are not allowed to add tolls to existing interstate highways. The Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program
allows the conversion of free Interstate highways into toll facilities in conjunction with needed reconstruction or rehabilitation that is only possible with the collection of tolls. The program is limited to three Interstates, each in a different state, to be tolled under this program, and the state's collection of tolls must be for a specified term exceeding 10 years.
The other two slots for this program have been reserved for I-95 in Virginia and I-70 in Missouri. Missouri's program was approved in 2005, but the state legislature has not yet given the Missouri DOT the go-ahead. Virginia's project was just approved last September.
North Carolina officials say tolls will generate $4.4 billion to add travel lanes, raise and rebuild bridges, and improve interchanges on the heavily traveled I-95.
North Carolina initiated the I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study in 2009. The study was a comprehensive evaluation of the interstate determining how to improve the safety, connectivity and efficiency of all 182 miles of I-95 in North Carolina. FHWA approved the study's Environmental Assessment in January and the department has begun a second round of public hearings to let citizens along the corridor know what the results of the study are and enable them to provide input.
The Environmental Assessment recommends widening the interstate to six and eight lanes, repairing pavement, raising and rebuilding bridges, improving interchanges and bringing I-95 up to current safety standards for interstates. The total cost for making these improvements to I-95 is $4.4 billion. Current funding only covers about 10% of the costs of these improvements.
The next steps include completing the standard environmental and permitting process. NCDOT will then submit a tolling plan for I-95 that includes pricing, project identification and scheduling, and a detailed description of how toll revenues would be applied to projects along the corridor.
According to published reports, the North Carolina tolls are scheduled to be added in 2019, after additional lanes are built on nearly 50 miles of highway between St. Pauls in Robeson County and the Interstate 40 interchange in Benson.
North Carolina has a website devote to the project, www.driving95.com/.
The FHWA rejected Rhode Island's proposal to toll I-95. Gov. Lincoln Chafee's administration asked in June for permission to place tollbooths on I-95 near the Connecticut border.
Officials in Connecticut said the move would unfairly burden motorists from their state, and critics feared an increase in traffic on local roads as drivers tried to avoid the tolls. However, the state DOT says it will continue to study the toll proposal with the goal of it being approved in future rounds of toll projects.
One of the reasons cited for the decision was that North Carolina is further ahead in the planning process on its project than Rhode Island.