LUMBERTON — The Lumberton Tourism Development Authority has become the latest county entity to oppose tolling on Interstate 95.
According to Executive Director Mickey Gregory, the board unanimously adopted a resolution at its May meeting in opposition of tolls. The authority, however, has not joined a larger coalition that has organized to oppose tolling.
“Tourism-related business is currently one of the largest employers in Robeson County, providing over 1,050 jobs,” Gregory and board Chairman Arnold West said in a statement. “These jobs result in a payroll of over $17 million. In 2010, tourism contributed $116.42 million to Robeson County’s economy. More than 55,000 vehicles travel through Robeson County each day on Interstate 95, the most heavily traveled roadway on the East Coast.”
Using tolls to pay for widening and making improvements to the 182 miles of I-95 that run through North Carolina from South Carolina to Virginia is recommended in a state-commissioned study — the I-95 Corridor Planning and Finance Study — as the best way to pay for the $4.4 billion project. The state is responsible for 10 percent of the funding, or $440 million.
The study proposes two toll sites in Robeson County — at mile-marker 12 near U.S. 74, and between mile-markers 28 and 31 at St. Pauls. Overall there would be nine sites located along North Carolina’s section of I-95.
The tourism board joins the towns of St. Pauls and Fairmont in opposing the tolls. Seven Lumberton city councilmen in April penned a letter to U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers stating their opposition to the tolls.
In addition to the burdens of tolling on commercial vehicles and travelers forced to divert to alternate roads to avoid tolls, the tourism board cites a lack of alternative funding sources listed in the study, and says the study doesn’t provide sufficient information on the economic effect of tolling along the I-95 corridor.
The Department of Transportation announced last week that it had begun an economic assessment and had created an advisory council to guide the process.
According to a statement, the council consists of representatives from major industries that have voiced concerns over the potential of tolling, including the N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition, the N.C. Trucking Association, the N.C. Retail Merchants Association and the N.C. Travel Industry Association.
The study will examine the economic effects, both positive and negative, of adding lanes on I-95 and paying for them with tolling or utilizing other funding that may exist. It will also examine the economic effect of not adding the lanes or making any significant improvements to the major highway outside what can be funded with existing funding sources.
Kristine O’Connor, a planning engineer and project manager with the Department of Transportation, told the Red Springs Board of Commissioners last week that the study is expected to begin in August and end early in 2013.
“So in February or March, we should have the answers to that study,” she said. “Then at that point, we will say, ‘Do we have reliable funding strategy to improve I-95?’ And if not, then we go back to the drawing board.”
One commissioner asked O’Connor why North Carolina’s gas tax — currently one of the highest in the nation at 38.9 cents — isn’t enough to fund the work.
According to O’Connor, North Carolina has the largest state-maintained road system in the country — about 80,000 miles; Georgia, a state of similar population, has about 18,000 miles of roads to maintain.
“They also have availability of sales tax and income taxes to help pay for their roadwork. Ours is strictly based out of gas tax,” O’Connor said, adding that North Carolina is third from the bottom in the nation with dollars per mile to spend on roadways.
O’Connor said the General Assembly asked the department to study placing tolls at only the state lines, which would raise about $25 million per year.
“That’s enough to fix about a mile a year. We’d all be dead before it was fixed,” she said.
Opposition to tolling from communities along I-95 has gained momentum in recent months, but some state and federal lawmakers have joined the fight too.
Ellmers and U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre have signed a bill to prohibit tolls, and U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell signed a bill that requires transportation officials to make public opinion the top priority when considering tolling.
A grassroots effort in Halifax County has been growing steadily to stop tolls from being implemented. The No Tolls on I-95 Coalition has more than 4,100 signatures on a petition in opposition to the tolling as of Friday.
“We’ve been meeting over the last several years, especially the people involved in tourism,” said Lori Medlin, president and CEO of the Halifax County Convention and Visitors Bureau and a member of the coalition. “We got really active when they started doing the public hearings.”
Medlin said a majority of the public input has been in opposition to tolling, which would “remove a fair playing field” from eastern North Carolina when it comes to luring businesses and companies.
According to Medlin, the study found that 30 percent of drivers will take other roads to avoid the tolls on I-95, which is referred to in the study as a “diversion rate.”
“So are they designing for the 30 percent decrease or the 1 percent increase?” she said.
“I hope their study will show how it’s going to affect individuals and businesses,” Medlin said of the upcoming assessment. “I hope it will show alternative funding. The people of North Carolina should demand that it does.”
Coalition memberships for city and county governments and businesses cost $1,000, and individual memberships cost $200. The deadline for dues to be paid is July 30.
Gregory said the tourism authority hasn’t officially become a member yet.
“I haven’t received any correspondence lately,” she said. “I certainly will be involved with it when we get notification for their next meeting.”