Wednesday, October 10, 2012 11:53 PM
Opposition to I-95 tolls fuels coalition, lawmakers
By Jon Jimison | Times Editor
"I have to fight for this road because the DOT is fighting against it.”
Those words drive Ernie Brame, new chairman of the No Tolls on I-95 coalition, a grassroots alliance of residents, businesses and local governments fighting to keep an N.C. Department of Transportation proposal to toll Interstate 95 from coming to fruition.
The fight is ongoing as the coalition continues to grow, Brame said.
"We are building it from border to border, from Robeson County to Northampton County,” Brame said. "Our petition has 4,500 signatures.”
The group also has a candidates’ scorecard on this issue and "no one is coming out in favor of it,” although not every elected official and candidate has responded.
"We are going to get double-taxed,” Brame said. "There is a lady I know who lives in Wilson and drives south of Smithfield to work each day. It will cost her $4 to drive to work.”
That adds up to $100 a month, he said.
In some ways, the coalition is waiting to see who is elected governor -- Republican Pat McCrory, who is leading in polls, or Democrat Walter Dalton.
"I have zero faith in the current governor and transportation secretary to do the right thing,” Brame said. "That’s why we are mobilizing.”
When asked if litigation was being considered, he said it is always an option.
"We hope it doesn’t get that far,” Brame said. "We are building a coalition showing a united front that there is no one for this. The next thing that needs to happen is the governor needs to be elected.”
Brame said in an interview that he’s expressing his personal views.
He contends that state fuel taxing policies have led to some truckers avoiding the state so they don’t have to buy fuel.
If tolls are passed, "there will be truckers who will avoid 95 altogether,” Brame said.
The state DOT just launched a six-month economic assessment study on Interstate 95 and the effects of tolling.
"The $1.6 million is a waste of money,” Brame contends, for something that will obviously reveal a crippling economic impact. "You are burying part of this economy.”
Brame lives and works in Kenly. He’s general manager of Kenly 95 Petro.
The coalition, which first showed signs of life with billboards many months ago, continues to grow with corporate members and local governments, according to Brame. The seed money came from the North Carolina Northeast Commission.
"Tolls are nothing more than taxes that will burden the residents of North Carolina as well as deliver less business to our state, translating into lower tax revenues,” said Brame. "They will create road congestion and divert traffic to roads less suited to handle cars and trucks. We need to attract and retain business along I-95. We can’t do that if nearly 30 percent of cars and trucks start to avoid the I-95 corridor because of tolls.”
Brame notes that state Sen. Buck Newton has been a big supporter of the anti-toll movement.
"My understanding is they are trying to raise awareness along the corridor and beyond and find a broad-based coalition to find alternatives,” Newton said. "That’s the way things normally get done, to bring awareness to lawmakers and others.”
The DOT was given a directive years ago to look at tolling, Newton said.
"DOT’s view of what needs to be done and paying for it isn’t always a creative approach,” he said. "We have to find some alternatives to this whole thing. It’s going to be a mess for Wilson, Rocky Mount, all along the corridor.”
Newton, R-Wilson, successfully added an amendment to the state budget that would block tolls on I-95 for two years. Newton is concerned about the impact on economic development and businesses that transport goods along the interstate.
He was also a primary sponsor of a Senate bill that requires a study on the effects of tolls on I-95 and requires approval from the General Assembly before tolls are permitted.
That bill didn’t pass, but it could become part of a future strategy.
Newton said for now, he’s trying to work with those chairing the transportation committees and DOT to find alternate methods of road improvements other than tolls. The Currituck Bridge project, for instance, has questionable value versus Interstate 95, which needs improvements.
"I’m against tolls other than perhaps for brand-new roads,” Newton said. "That’s our history in this state.”
Other interstates in North Carolina received improvements without tolls, Newton noted.
"I want people to understand the gravity of that and singling out part of the state to suffer the tolls,” Newton said. "We’ve been paying our gas tax like everyone else.”
Newton fears costly tolls could jeopardize the future of a valuable company such as Firestone in Wilson.
"We want the facility to grow,” Newton said. "I don’t want conditions to lend itself to having them move.”
The toll proposal has already inflicted damage on this region, Newton said.
Sheetz considered Middlesex in Nash County for a distribution center that could have brought 150 jobs.
"After tolls came up, Nash County was struck from the list,” Newton said. "They ended up going to 85 kind of near Burlington. They stated tolling was an issue for them.”
Newton concedes that Interstate 95 needs upgrades, but he questions whether more than $4 billion along with the DOT’s timetable are needed.
"I am reasonably confident in the two years we will find an alternative, " Newton said. "We have a good coalition in the General Assembly opposed to tolling I-95. We need to grow it.”
The DOT’s job is to build roads, not to figure out how to raise the money, Newton said.
"It’s up to us to come up with the answer,” he said. "I-95 is one of my top priorities.”
The DOT study is in response to questions raised from residents during previous public hearings on tolling I-95.
The study will examine what the economic impacts, both positive and negative, will be to adding lanes on I-95 and paying for them with tolling or using other funding that may exist, according to the DOT. It will also examine the economic impact of not adding the lanes or making any significant improvements outside of what can be funded with existing funding sources.
"This study is in response to the people and businesses of North Carolina and their concerns voiced during the first stage of our study process,” Roberto Canales, NCDOT project executive, said in a statement. "We want to make the right decisions for the citizens of North Carolina as we move forward.”
Cambridge Systematics of Atlanta, Ga., will conduct the study. It is being funded with federal transportation money. Once the study is complete, the state will determine the best way to proceed with the improvements to I-95, according to DOT officials.
The DOT received conditional approval to toll I-95 from the Federal Highway Administration earlier this year. DOT proposes tolling the highway in North Carolina to help pay for $4.4 billion in improvements and repairs to meet future transportation demands.
More and more organizations, community leaders and elected officials in Wilson have taken a stand against the tolling effort.
Newton isn’t the only lawmaker to propose bills against tolling.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, has filed a bill requiring more public input before tolling projects are approved, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., introduced a standalone bill, the No Tolls in North Carolina Act of 2012.
The Wilson Chamber of Commerce is concerned that 30 percent of drivers will be diverted to other rural roads to avoid the tolling charges and that the economic impact needs further study that will explore the cost burden of tolling residents, businesses and communities in Wilson County and along the I-95 corridor.
The Wilson Chamber of Commerce board of directors voted in favor of a resolution that opposes the tolling of I-95 until the state DOT fully investigates alternative sources of revenue to finance future improvements and studies the resulting economic impact of tolling Interstate 95.
The Wilson County Tourism Development Authority and the Wilson City Council have also taken a stand against the tolls.
Road improvements to I-95 are estimated to cost up to $5 billion, but the DOT only has $450 million in funding available for the project, Ted Vaden, deputy secretary for internal and external affairs with the N.C. Department of Transportation, previously said.
The I-95 tolling proposal involves widening I-95 from four to eight lanes from Exit 31 south of Fayetteville to Exit 81 in Johnston County and from four to six lanes on the remainder of the highway, starting at the South Carolina state line to Exit 31 and from Exit 81 to the Virginia border.
The first phase, 50 miles from Exit 31 to Exit 81, would be paid for through a $2 billion bond. The improvements would take about three years. Gantries would be placed along the entire interstate and tolls collected to help pay for phase two. Phase two includes the remaining 132 miles of the highway, including Wilson County, and would take close to 13 years to finish.
NEW BOARD MEMBERS
In addition to Brame, Scott Aman, New Dixie Oil Corp., was announced as treasurer. The No Tolls I-95 Coalition Inc. also announced the board appointments of: Kimberly Bracy, Kapstone; Will Mahone, Halifax Regional Medical Center; Russ Saputo, Carolina Eagle Distribution; Scott Turner, Rocky Mount Travel and Tourism; Lori Medlin, Halifax County Tourism Development Authority; David Edwards, Coastal Wholesale Grocery of Kinston; and Crystal Collins, North Carolina Trucking Association.
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