LUMBERTON — There is no clear answer to the question of how to pay for $4.5 billion of improvements to North Carolina’s stretch of Interstate 95, consultants to the state Department of Transportation told visitors to an informal information session at Robeson Community College.
“There is no single funding option that is clearly better or no single funding option that is clearly worse than any of the others, based solely on their projected economic impact,” said consultant Paula Dowell on Monday as she pointed out figures on a board that highlighted study findings. “We were hoping there might be some be some clear-cut winners and losers, but the analysis just doesn’t suggest that.”
North Carolina must pay for 10 percent of the cost; the General Assembly will consider the study and decide which funding option is the best.
Funding options studied include tolls — both full-price and at a 50 percent mitigated rate for “local trips” — as well as the following:
— Raising the state fuel tax by about 7 cents per gallon or the federal fuel tax by 13.8 cents per gallon.
— Increasing state sales tax by 1 percent.
— A 0.039 percent increase in state income tax.
— A 30-year funding package that includes a 1 percent increase in state sales tax, 5 percent fee increase in vehicle registration fees, and a 1 percent increase in the highway use tax.
— A 10-year funding package that includes a 1 percent increase in sales tax, a 50 percent fee increase in vehicle registration fees, and a 1 percent increase in highway use tax.
Dowell said the options would have about the same economic impact, each adding about $75 billion to gross regional product between now and 2050 and adding more than 16,000 jobs a year. Not widening the interstate would hinder regional growth, costing the area jobs and economic opportunities, she said.
Some of those who attended the meeting, including members of a group created to publicly oppose tolls, were there to make sure “every funding option was considered.” They wore stickers with the slogan “no tolls I95” and brought plenty more with them to hand out to others who wanted to join their ranks.
“I don’t want Interstate 95 to be treated any differently than I-40 or I-85,” said Ernie Brame, chairman of the group and general manager of a truck stop in Kenly. He added that he doesn’t understand why the locations for the tolls were selected for Robeson County, which has one of the state’s highest unemployment and poverty rates.
It’s estimated that tolls for traveling the entire 182 miles of interstate passing through North Carolina would be $20 for motorists who do not live in North Carolina. For Robeson County, the plan includes two tolling sites, at mile marker 12 near U.S. 74 and between mile markers 28 and 31 at St. Pauls.
Duncan Mackie, who is part owner of a funeral home in St. Pauls, said that the town fears the proposed toll would create more traffic on U.S. 301 as Robeson County residents attempt to skirt paying a fee on their commute to Lumberton or Fayetteville. The additional cars would put a strain on the town’s one stoplight on U.S. 301, create a traffic back-up and a higher risk of accidents, he said. St. Pauls Mayor Buddy Westbrook, who remembers when U.S. 301 was the only major road near the town, is of the same opinion.
“I remember in the 1960s, you could barely get a car across there,” he said. “Imagine what it would look like today.”
Dike Ahanotu, a consultant who had worked on studying tolling’s effect on secondary roads, said that the study showed increased traffic on U.S. 301 was “significant.”
“It’s not negligible at all, it’s something that really needs to be considered,” he said.
Consultant Nilchil Puri said that because the tolls would be placed on the lanes themselves and not on the ramps, locals who “know the route” would easily be able to avoid paying a fee.
“We found that there is obviously going to be diversion from I-95 and the secondary roads could face an adverse affect,” he said, “but we found that will be mainly from growth in the area and not just from people avoiding the toll.”
People were invited to leave comments for the department. Writing statements of opposition to the tolls were Tim and Vicki Farabaugh, of Orrum. The two had just traveled to Lake View, S.C., to fill up on gas that was $3.29 a gallon, much less expensive than in North Carolina.
“North Carolina is the most expensive state to travel in,” Vicki said. “We’re against it, but I feel like they’ve probably already made up their minds.”
Jack and Shirley Robinson, of Foundation Builders Faith Institute in Pembroke, were gathering information to bring back to their congregation and to speak their mind about the tolls. They called tolls “a huge deal” to the members of the church who struggle financially, but Shirley also said that the size of the interstate in a few years will create a situation like “trying to land a 747 in a cornfield.”
“The idea wasn’t to try to burden the locals with a huge toll,” Ahanotu said, “but to be fair about who’s paying for it and who’s benefiting from it as well.”
Abbi Overfelt works for Civitas Media as editor of The Red Springs Citizen and The St. Pauls Review.