I-95 study yields options

Published 7:40 am Monday, April 22, 2013

JACKSON – The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s I-95 Economic Assessment is nearing completion.

Last week, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners received an update from Roberto Canales with DOT on the study which is looking at various impacts of tolling on the interstate.

Canales said the department is attempting to visit with each of the counties within the I-95 corridor and speak about the required economic study being conducted by DOT that the North Carolina General Assembly asked them to perform over the last several months.

“As you are probably very aware, this road has been studied multiple times since the early 2000s,” he said. “We completed a study last year where the proposed designed of how the road might be widened over the next 20 years was presented and the question of how the state would then pay for that widening.”

He added a part of the study is whether or not the road should be tolled.

“While DOT has never said that we need to toll the highway, we have said based on the studies from the consultants is that it appears that tolling seems to be, under the current scheme of funding the only viable way to get the road built over the next 20 years,” Canales said.

With tolling as a viable option, the General Assembly requested DOT to conduct an assessment study that will look at the economic impact (negative and positive) of tolling in order to widen the road.

DOT was given a timeframe to report back to the General Assembly by March.

“We’re running a little behind schedule, so we have not made a formal report to the General Assembly,” he said. “We have, a long with a consultant, gathered together a significant amount of data to try to put that report together. Our final report at this point is really planning to be turned into the General Assembly in May.”

Canales said as a part of the study, DOT asked consultants to study alternatives when they look at economic impact.

According to information provided by Canales, those alternatives include:

Business as usual – which with the current funding mechanism roughly $40 million a year that goes toward the highway it would take 70 to 80 years to get to the widened I-95 that is projected to be needed.

Funding improvements by other methods – to establish an economic impact perspective what the standard would be if the funding could somehow be found and the road was widened. Canales referred to this as “the-money-falling-out-of-the-sky” option

Funding improvements by tolling – what would be the economic impact of those counties along the corridor, the counties outside of those particular areas and the state. DOT has engaged many external stakeholders to form an advisory council to help guide the study, including those associations, groups and coalitions involved with retail, industry, agriculture, travel/tourism and even those opposed to the tolls on the interstate.

Canales said DOT has utilized the advisory council to help with things they may not be aware of as it pertains to those specific areas and if they need to study certain issues more closely.

“We continue to utilize them even as we finalize the report,” he said.

DOT has also utilized interviews, surveys, meetings, focus groups and websites to collect information.

“Our intent as we move forward would be to actually go out to public meetings when we have the final draft,” he said. “Those meetings would be scheduled in early May and then we would have more public discussion as to what we found and have not found. Then we would present to the General Assembly.”

Vice Chair Virginia Spruill said she recently attended an RPO meeting where the same report was presented.

“What I was kind of concerned with—and everybody else was concerned with, those folks who are close to 95—was the economic impact that development would have on the area,” she said.

She added it was a very in depth survey with several groups involved with input.

Canales said the report will be presented in May to the General Assembly, but he wasn’t sure if a decision would occur then.

“The public and the General Assembly will have that opportunity to voice additional concerns,” he said. “You’re spot on target, the issue is the economic impact of the project if you toll. The other part of this is over five, 10, 15, 20 years there will be a definite economic impact of ‘business as usual, as traffic grows and as conditions out there worsen that is going to create a situation that may or may not be attractive for the economic welfare of the region too.”

Spruill said there was also a discussion about not looking at one particular source of funding, but a conglomeration of several sources to come up with the cost of the project.

“What we’ve asked this consultant to do is to look at, along with the money falling out of the sky and tolling, are there other funding mechanisms that you might fund this through,” Canales said. “If you look at other states, they may or may not have a gas tax, where they are different from North Carolina is they pretty much use a full gamut of other forms of taxes, be it property tax, county road taxes, sales tax. So, we have asked the consultant to look at those various other mechanisms and come back with a menu of opportunities.”

Canales said this is the point of the survey, to present various options to the General Assembly to fund the project.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins questioned if DOT is given any consideration to the traffic that would jump off the interstate and take an alternate routes through the county. He added Northampton receives an allocation to upkeep those secondary roads.

“Is there going to be an additional formula revisited to make sure the funding matches the need,” Jenkins asked.

Canales said DOT is looking at what might be the diversion of the design if tolling is a choice.

“The numbers range from five to 30 percent depending where you are on the corridor and really how attractive those potential diversions could be,” he said. “If that occurs you have to define your corridor and where the money is going.”

Canales said the simple answer would be if those routes were identified as diversions than the money from the project would help keep the roads up.

“The other part we’re looking at too is with diversion, do you lose any economic benefit—meaning not stopping at your hotel on 95,” he said. “The consultant has looked at a band about two miles wide, each side of 95, and early projects are is that there is about $1 billon in there over a period of time that theoretically shifts. The reality of it though is if they go to (US) 301, you’re still inside that band and you’re still helping your community. Depending on where you sit you could actually be reaping some benefits.”

Commissioner Fannie Greene said citizens are already paying various taxes as far as highways are concerned.

“If that’s not enough—I guess I’m thinking about the tolling that you were speaking of,” she said. “What are the possibilities? It looks like it’s going to come whether we like it or not.”

Canales said if you look at the state as it relates to transportation revenue there is really only one source, sales tax on cars and registration and license.

“A lot of those are extended (over a period of years),” he said. “That revenue is declining cause you’re not doing it as often.”

He said North Carolina is in the top three in the country as it relates to gas tax, however when looking at how other states use that tax, as it relates to transportation and highway construction, the state is in the bottom 48.

“They have other mechanisms,” he said. “So it’s not an apples to apples comparison.”

He noted this is why the study is looking at the issue because with vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, less gas tax will collected.