I can't say I've agreed often with U.S. Rep. Renee Elmers, the "accidental congresswoman" who won after Rep. Bob Etheridge was caught on tape putting a stranglehold on an impudent tea-party inquisitor. But Elmers has proposed a bill that would forbid the implementation of tolls on Interstate 95 in North Carolina, to which I can only say, "Hear, hear!"
Hearings are being held at various stops along the 182 miles of I-95 in North Carolina to gain public reaction to the proposal. Needless to say, few people come to these hearings and say, "Thank you for putting tolls on that highway! I can't wait to begin paying tolls!"
The aim of the tolls is to provide the billions needed to upgrade I-95, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state. If you've driven I-95, particularly the segment from Kenly to Lumberton, you know the meaning of "nerve-wracking." The lanes are narrow, and there are only two lanes in each direction for most of the way. Traffic is always heavy and can overwhelm the capacity of the highway. Improvements are needed, and the state has responded with a proposal to widen I-95 to six or more lanes for the length of North Carolina.
But to pay for that widening, the state wants to impose tolls that will charge every user of that stretch of interstate an additional fee, above the state and federal gasoline taxes the user is already paying. In a state with the highest gasoline taxes in the Southeast, that just doesn't seem right.
Proponents say tolls will collect user fees from out-of-state travelers and from truckers and others who fill up in South Carolina or Virginia, where gasoline taxes are lower. But most of the users of I-95 in North Carolina carry N.C. license plates, and they are already paying plenty — more than in neighboring states — for the use of that highway.
More importantly, placing tolls on I-95 amounts to rank discrimination against the most economically distressed portion of the state. Many of the counties through which I-95 passes — Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Harnett, Robeson — are among the poorest in the state. Many workers depend on I-95 to get to and from work because there is no work available locally. Tolls will create another economic barrier for these workers and for the region's recovery and economic well-being.
While state Department of Transportation officials have allowed I-95 deteriorate through neglect, the state has managed to find money to widen Interstate 85 from Durham to Greensboro and from Greensboro to Charlotte, and Interstate 40 from Raleigh through Winston-Salem. North Carolina also found the money to build I-485 around Charlotte, an I-85/40 bypass around Greensboro, the I-40 bypass around Winston-Salem, the I-540 bypass (northern half) around Raleigh and the I-240 bypass around Asheville. It is even turning U.S. 220 and U.S. 74 into an interstate running from Virginia through Greensboro to Wilmington, all while I-95 was crumbling with neglect.
Such favoritism is patently unfair, and the public should rise up in protest against this inequity. Elmers' bill might not succeed in halting this ill-advised discrimination against residents of the I-95 corridor, but it will at least shine a light on the iniquitous inequity of this proposal.