We have never bought the argument that tolls are the only way to pay for improvements to Interstate 95 in North Carolina. The Tar Heel State is literally paved with evidence to the road-building contrary – Interstate 40 from Raleigh to Wilmington, ongoing improvements to Interstate 85 from Greensboro to Charlotte, the U.S. 70 bypasses of Clayton and Smithfield-Selma, the I-40 bypass of Winston-Salem. The state paid for all of those without tolls.
With opposition to tolling all of I-95 so strong, the N.C. Department of Transportation is floating an alternative – tolled express lanes. That’s an option we can reluctantly buy into.
Though tolls are more obvious than taxes, North Carolina has long been a user-pay state when it comes to roads. Everyone who buys a gallon of gasoline pays state and federal gas taxes, with the money going to build and maintain roads. In that sense, anyone choosing a tolled express lane on I-95 would be paying twice to use the highway. That hardly seems fair.
But it’s true also that convenience comes with a premium price. That’s why a gallon of milk at the always-open convenience store costs more than a gallon of milk at the grocery store that closes at 10 p.m. The express lanes would be a convenience, allowing motorists, if they choose, to avoid the congestion that can make I-95 annoying at best, intolerable at worst.
But importantly, no one would be forced to pay both gas taxes and tolls to use I-95. Motorists content with regular I-95 traffic could continue to drive the highway for gas taxes only. Drivers wanting to avoid traffic snarls could choose to pay a premium to use an express lane.
The DOT suspects that tolled express lanes won’t generate enough money to make all needed improvements to I-95, and it’s likely right. But again, North Carolina has shown time and gain that it doesn’t need tolls to build and improve roads. Instead, tolled express lanes would simply offer drivers a premium choice while generating some money for I-95 improvements.
In other words, the state wouldn’t be a bully; it would be customer-friendly, and that’s what a state agency ought to be.