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The New Jersey Turnpike has collected tolls from out-of-state drivers for decades.
TRANSPORTATION has long been a hot topic in Virginia, with solutions to our challenges eluding governors and other policymakers from both parties for decades. Yet, with each passing year, those challenges become more critical, the solutions more elusive.
The problem is getting so bad that recent national surveys on economic competitiveness see Virginia on a downward slide because of our transportation infrastructure.
I think I can speak for the general mood of most Virginians when I say we want our roads fixed, fixed now, and we don't want to hear about how much it costs or why we can't afford it all without some sort of change to current revenue streams for the transportation trust fund.
These challenges start at the federal level, where a percentage of the funds collected in Virginia are siphoned off and sent to other states and localities--Chicago and San Francisco certainly fared well under the so-called "stimulus" program, and a number of others receive more than they generate annually.
The federal government then tells us how to spend much of what remains and loads upon us one expensive mandate after another. They use the power of the almighty federal tax code and federal regulations to encourage the development and purchase of alternative fuel and more-efficient vehicles--thereby reducing revenues from the sale of gasoline that is supposed to fund the roads on which we all travel.
And then they require us to divert more funds away from the roads to other "priorities" to demonstrate our enlightened view of the world.
At the local level we add roads to the system for the state to maintain, to request--nay demand--new projects, and then demand they be canceled once we have spent our precious few dollars on an environmental impact or design to nowhere (at least nowhere once it is canceled)--all the while insisting that VDOT become more efficient.
In Virginia, the problem is compounded by all the people traveling through it--heading to Florida for the winter, New England for the summer, or points in between. These travelers not only contribute to the wear and tear on those roads, they also contribute to the congestion that so plagues our commonwealth.
My favorite pastime while sitting in traffic is to determine the ratio of out-of-state to in-state drivers, helping me to surrender two hours of life I will never recover. Let's also not forget the significant role two of our interstates--both 95 and 81--play in interstate commerce. Just take a look on any given day and you will see trucks heading north or south, bringing precious cargo to people in New Jersey, New York, Georgia, South Carolina, and any number
NOT JUST THE INTERSTATES
The interstate system is not alone in this commercial endeavor. Just ask those who attended the recent transportation town hall in southern Stafford County and offered their views on U.S. 17 congestion. It is difficult for most people to visualize that particular traffic jam because it is just hard to see past all those trucks lined up to head south.
Is it any wonder that with such extensive use of our roads and so much federal "help" that we find ourselves forced to transfer more than $350 million each year from Virginia's highway construction fund to our maintenance fund? Is anyone surprised that our deteriorating transportation infrastructure is listed as the reason for our decline in business competitiveness? This is something that, if not corrected, will plague future generations
So, where does that leave us? The governor has proposed placing a toll down near the North Carolina border to collect revenue to pay for maintenance and upgrades for which these interstate travelers create the need. Today, it is Virginia taxpayers who have shouldered these costs by diverting funds that could have gone to congestion relief, sending them instead to interstate maintenance. Of the estimated 37,000 daily vehicles that will be subject to this toll, 70 percent to 80 percent are out-of-state travelers.
If approved, a net of $30 million annually will be raised to offset the maintenance and upgrade costs in that immediate area, which will allow the commonwealth to reduce the transfer from the construction fund and instead use it for interstate priorities in our own region, including the State Route 630 interchange and the widening of I-95 past the Rappahannock (with needed upgrades to the Route 17 and State Route 3 interchanges for the relief so desperately needed there).
Obviously, this proposal does not sit well with the national truckers associations in Washington who are leading the opposition to the proposal. I even had one representative of their industry suggest that the solution was to raise the Virginia gas tax.
I may be a bit simpleminded, but if charging a toll at a point 120 miles from here to help pay for some of the maintenance costs interstate travelers impose on our transportation system allows us to move forward with construction of key congestion-relief upgrades in this region, then it sounds like a good and fair deal for all involved.
We would be blind to think this is a salve that will cure all of our transportation challenges. However, it certainly is a start.
Now, if we could only find a way to get our funds back from the Feds. Get them to help someone else--maybe themselves--for a change.
Cord A. Sterling , a Stafford supervisor, serves on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Fredericksburg District.