Objections To Optional Tolling Plan Are ‘Silly,’ Experts Say

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Peter Fricke Contributor
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North Carolina lawmakers are getting an earful from citizens opposed to new, optional toll lanes on a section of Interstate highway, but transportation advocates widely support the plan.

Earlier this month, state officials signed a contract establishing a public-private partnership (P3) with Spanish contractor Cintra Infraestructuras to build new express lanes alongside existing general-purpose lanes on a 26-mile section of I-77 near the city of Charlotte, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

In exchange for the right to collect tolls from the new lanes for the next 50 years, Cintra will fund most of the $647 million expansion, while the state’s share, at $95 million, will be significantly less than the $170 million that NCDOT had previously established as its maximum contribution. (RELATED: Coloradans Fuming Over Secret Deal to Privatize Highway Toll Lanes)

The tolls will employ congestion-based pricing—meaning the cost rises when more drivers use the express lanes and falls when traffic is light—a system that is intended to prevent overcrowding on either portion of the highway by incentivizing drivers to take the road less traveled.

A group of civic and business leaders travelled to the state capitol in Raleigh Tuesday to state their objections to the project in face-to-face meetings with legislators, bringing with them hundreds of petitions from like-minded citizens, WBTV reports.

The group received early encouragement from Democratic state Rep. Duane Hall, who expressed support for its efforts and touted the effectiveness of grassroots lobbying efforts.

“I am absolutely dead set against toll roads in North Carolina,” Hall told WBTV. “We’re already paying enough for roads and any more road work should be paid for from funds already in place.”

John McAlpine, the group’s organizer, told The Charleston Daily Mail that rather than easing congestion as the state has promised, he and other members believe the project would actually exacerbate traffic problems. Most drivers would opt against paying the tolls, he predicted, while large commercial trucks would not even be allowed to use the new lanes. (RELATED: Truckers Want Car Drivers to Pick Up Highway Tab)

Transportation advocates, on the other hand, are generally supportive of the project, saying the partnership is an effective way to alleviate congestion without imposing new taxes that will affect citizens whether they use the highway or not.

“The I-77 corridor has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic volumes over the past five years,” Competitive Enterprise Institute research fellow Marc Scribner told The Daily Caller News Foundation, and “tolling with variable pricing is the only way to effectively deal with traffic congestion.”

“This should be a no-brainer,” especially since Cintra will assume most of the construction costs and risk, he said, describing objections to the plan as “silly.”

“I suspect most of the business groups opposed to the HOV lane conversion and additional express lane would simply prefer to have somebody else pay for their road use,” Scribner added. “Opponents wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of limited government aren’t fiscal conservatives; they’re road socialists demanding more and more of other people’s money.”

Even the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) is not opposing the project, spokesman Miles Morin told TheDCNF, explaining that the group distinguishes between tolling new interstate lanes and tolling existing general-purpose interstate lanes.

“Tolling existing lanes gets rid of capacity that drivers can currently access without paying extra,” he explained, whereas “tolling new lanes has no impact on the number of toll-free lanes available to drivers.” (RELATED: Obama Highway Plan Paves Way for New Tolls Nationwide)

At the same time, though, Morin also cautioned that, “traffic estimates in P3 tolling proposals are frequently highly inflated, and do not produce the revenue upon which the P3 is predicated. Depending on how the deal is structured, the public often ends up on the hook for the unrealized toll revenue, if it does not accrue as expected.”

In North Carolina’s case, the state’s share of that risk is capped at $75 million over the 50-year life of the contract, and in the event that Cintra defaults on its end of the bargain, NCDOT would have the option of recovering control for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar and all future toll revenues.

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