"No more large projects are possible without tolls" - VA sec transport Sean Connaughton
By Peter Samuel
2012-04-23: Virginia secretary of transportation Sean Connaughton says there will be no more major highway construction projects in the state without tolls. He was speaking in an interview with TOLLROADSnews Friday. He said the costs of major transport projects needed in the state are far beyond the capacity of the gasoline tax and federal grants to fund.
"Look at the costs of the major projects we have (in Virginia) and look at the decline of traditional revenues. We cannot get a single large new project funded without tolls."
Connaughton said that traditional funding sources will only support operations, maintenance and minor projects.
The Virginia secretary called the gasoline tax "a dinosaur" as the basic funding source for roads.
Tolls "the ultimate user fee"
He said not only is the gas tax in decline as a revenue generator but it doesn't have other advantages of tolls - of being able to charge those who use the facility being improved, or to manage traffic with variable rates.
Undermining the gasoline tax is a "dramatic increase in efficiency" of cars. Virginia he thinks is not unusual in seeing a quite rapid decline in the fuel tax yield. This year they had forecast a slight increase in gas tax revenue but they are seeing a decline of 1.5%.
A generation ago, Connaughton said, typical American cars got 8 to 10 miles per gallon. Now cars get 25 to 40 miles per gallon, "and there are new cars now that do 50mpg."
He said the gasoline tax is also increasingly unfair as a source of revenue as better off people buy the new fuel efficient cars and pay less per mile.
Now that all-electronic tolling allows tolls to be collected without stopping traffic the toll is "the ultimate user fee," Connaughton said.
On tolling I-95 the secretary said he hopes they'll be able to go to financial close "within three months" with the Transurban/Fluor partnership on their agreement to convert the HOV lanes and improve them to HOT lanes.
Under the studies being done to get approval for tolling reconstruction of I-95 to the southern border Connaughton said the project is shaping up with two toll points:
(1) a north toll point between Fredericksburg and Ashland
(2) a south toll point between Petersburg and the North Carolina border
Tolling I-95 in the Richmond metro area is not being pursued, the secretary said. There are far too many exits and entries on I-95 itself, and there are traffic diversion issues with I-295.
First priority for use of toll revenues will be rebuilds to address safety issues on I-95 - improving sight lines and entries and exits. There are also more than 50 low clearance bridges of crossroads over VA/I-95 that would be rebuilt to higher clearance.
There are a lot of accident hotspots especially on the oldest portions in the Richmond metro area he said.
"It's just a very old road now. It just needs rebuilding to modern standards."
Congestion will be reduced by better design and fewer accidents.
Also to get under way as soon as toll revenues become available will be rebuilding and third laning of I-95 from south of Petersburg 47 miles to the North Carolina border. This is the only stretch of VA/I-95 with only two lanes each direction.
"We're coordinating with North Carolina because they have similar plans to toll and rebuild I-95 there."
Connaughton said they'd probably do reconstruction of I-95 and tolling as a public private partnership, but that's not certain: "That's the way we'd be inclined to do it."
The Feds and tolling
Connaughton said the states "get mixed signals" from the federal government on tolling.
"On the one hand they talk about tolling for new capacity, but the biggest need is reconstruction which they can't fund, but on the other hand they only allow these (limited number of pilot projects.)"
New Potomac River Crossing
Connaughton said Virginia has started discussion with Maryland authorities about a new crossing of the Potomac River west of the Capital Beltway's American Legion Bridge. This would provide for much improved movement between Maryland and Virginia and relieve traffic pressure on both the Beltway and the highways off it.
We told Connaughton it was rather easy for him to advocate this because the connection is relatively east to make on the Virginia side (to VA28 at VA7) just two to three miles from the river. By contrast his colleagues in Maryland have to find an acceptable route over 14 miles or more from I-270 in Gaitherburg to the crossing.
The Virginia secretary said Marylanders stand to benefit much more than Virginians from from the proposed new Potomac crossing, because far more Marylanders commute into Virginia for jobs, than Virginians go into Maryland.
"On public opinion the surveys show 70 percent and more support for this. The problem is not public opinion, it is special interests. You have special interests who'll oppose a project like this. The public can see the benefits."
Dulles Rail/Toll Road
On the Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Rail project it is being used to fund Connaughton said "our focus has been on getting costs back down" to the original estimates when the funding agreement was made with MWAA, local counties, and the Feds in 2009.
We asked him if some compromise was possible over Phase 2 such as ending the train line at Dulles Airport if Loudoun County beyond drops out. They have until July to decide if they want the train.
Connaughton said "No I think we're back to Square One if Loudoun drops out."
BACKGROUND: I-95 179 miles, 288km long in Virginia is the key north-south highway through the middle of the state and extends from North Carolina to Maryland (at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.) As well as carrying long distanced traffic it has key roles in Richmond, the state capital metro area and in Northern Virginia, part of the national capital metro area. A segment south of Richmond to Petersburg was toll financed originally in the 1950s, but there are currently no tolls on it.
In September 2011 VA/I-95 was given provisional US Government approval for tolling to rebuild it under a pilot program with only three 'slots (NC/I-95 and MO/I-70 are the other two.)
Reconstruction projects costed at $6.4b have been identified, spread over 25 years.
Toll revenue of $50m/year has been discussed.