VA asks Feds for OK to toll only one point on I-95, tolls only to top up tax-$s

September 5, 2012

2012-09-05: The McDonnell administration in Virginia has drastically scaled back its plans for tolling I-95. In its recently filed application to the Feds, two toll points have been reduced to one. And the lone mainline toll point is located in the most lightly trafficked segment of I-95 in the state in a rural setting 22 miles north of the North Carolina border.

As a result gross toll revenues at a mere $40m/year in the early years and $65m to $70 in the 2030s will only finance a small proportion of the improvements needed on the state's most important interstate highway. In place of tolls as the major financing engine for VA/I-95 they are now planning them as a modest top-up to hugely increased tax funding.

Of $857m to be spent on upgrade and maintenance of I-95 2015 to 2020 tolls net of expenses would contribute only $155m or 18%. 82% would be reliant on tax or debt-based federal and state grants.

The underlying challenge is that 95% of the interstate was built in 1950s and 60s and much of the original roadway is 60 to 70 years old.  Virtually the whole length of the interstate needs serious work.

Over a 25 year period VDOT identifies $12.2b in needed reconstruction, rehabilitation and widening south of the 95 Express Lanes concession at MM143 - up the road a bit from Fredericksburg. North of MM143  (up the road a few miles from Fredericksburg) in the Washington DC metro area suburbs of northern Virginia the upgrades are being left to Transurban and their I-95 rebuild with reversible toll express lanes.

VDOT's $12.2b rebuilding from MM143 south supports areas outside the Washington DC metro area and covers the highway through the urban areas of Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg and the more rural areas in between. There are mixes of longdistance traffic and shorter intra-urban flows.

Priority is to be given to projects around the two toll points selected earlier:

- rebuild of the I-95 interchange with I-85 and US460 in southern Petersburg

- pavement and bridge reconstruction and rehab work on the oldest sections of I-95 north of Richmond to Emporia


Then follow:

- safety improvements to the I-95/I-64 overlap segment in Richmond including 4th laning and auxiliary lanes

- rebuild of the VA630 IC and 13 miles of 4th lanes widening VA3 in Fredericksburg MM130 to Garrisonville Rd CR610 MM143)  at the southern end of the extension of median reversible lanes to be tolled under the Transurban concession from the Beltway in Springfield south to near Fredericksburg

...and a whole heap more (see project pages on VDOT website)

VDOT's application to toll under the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program lays out the 'needs' of I-95 and the huge shortfall from gas tax funds, federal and state.

Giving I-95 the normal proportion of projected grant funding based on federal and state fuel taxes there would be $2.1b in projected funding 2015 to 2040 leaving a 'funding gap' of $10.1b. (VDOT in some presentations uses $2.5b in projected tax funding, leaving a 'funding gap' of $9.6b.)

Unfortunately with tolling downgraded to a single remote and sparsely trafficked toll point there's only $1.14b in net toll contributions over 25 years (from toll revenues forecast at $1.36b.)

Tolling downsized to support less than 10% of works

Tolling supports a mere 9.3% of needed funding of $12.2b. Only 11.3% of the funding gap is filled by tolls. Nearly 90% of the 'funding gap' remains.

How far this retreats from serious toll financing is indicated in the traffic and revenue study which looked at five alternative tolling schemes. Produced by C&M Associates the report makes clear the forecasting scenarios were being set by VDOT. So they started out more ambitiously!

The toll point options looked at initially were:

A. mainline tolls at MM22 at Jarratt and at MP100 in Ashland (MM = mile marker or mile post measured from 0 in the south at the NC border)

B. six mainline toll points at about 20 mile intervals MM22 Jarratt, MM45 south of Petersburg, MM61 south of Richmond, MM85 in northern Richmond, MM101 Ashland and MM124 south of Fredericksburg

then three differently configured 'closed' systems with all trip segments covered south of MM143 where the Transurban express lanes begin

C. closed toll system tolling interchanges and ramps

D. closed system optimized as between mainline and ramp tolls

E. closed system with mainline toll between each interchange

C and E produced the same revenue so were combined for forecasting as C/E

Taking the first six years the annual average toll forecasts ranged between $86m and $323m. Five out of 12 scenarios modeled completely covered VDOT's planned annual capital spending and operating expenses of $170m/year 2015 to 2020 for $857m.

Over the 25 year period (2015 to 2040) with $12.2b needed the gross toll revenues forecast range between $2.57b (A1) and $9.55b (D3) with average annual tolls between$103m and $382m. (see our table below)

(NOTE: the C&M forecast isn't formatted to directly address VDOT's "needs" estimates based on 6 and 25 year periods. To provide a comparison with VDOT's timid tolling proposal to USDOT we took their 2015-2020 and 2015-2040 forecast toll revenue numbers at 5-year intervals and used a spreadsheet to get the tables nearby - editor.)

Follow-on 'subset' analysis

VDOT in its withdrawal from serious revenue-raising tolling schemes for I-95 ordered up more forecasting of subsets of the two toll-point arrangement 'A.' Confusingly C&M reused the A1, A2, A3 headings  (arrangement/toll rate) but we've distinguished them with new notations:

A(-T2)2. is the A arrangement minus the second toll point - only the single MM22 toll point at Jarratt remains at the second level toll rate of $4.00 for cars so this drastically reduces the A2 revenues (adopted)

A2-1way. is one-way tolling at toll points at MM22 and MM100 (dumped)

A1mod. is a slightly modified version of A1, meaning tolls both directions at toll points at MM22 Jarratt and MM100 Ashland at the basic $4.00 for cars at the mainline toll points and half that at nearby ramp tolls (dumped)

For the immediate six year program of $857m  these all fail by a considerable margin to raise the required revenues producing $250m, $397m and $489m respectively. Toward the 25 year program of $12.2b they produce $1.36b, $2.09b and $2.44b.

A(-T2)2 is the scheme advanced to the Feds as the final Virginia proposal.

Tolling is relegated to the least trafficked point in the whole highway, with the highest proportion of interstate vehicles. This appears to be taking a line of least political resistance.

It leaves serious funding decisions to a future administration.

The 'diversion' bugaboo

Frequently cited in the VDOT discussion as a problem of tolling is the old bugaboo of 'diversion.'

C&M put big emphasis - apparently at VDOT's direction - on estimates of diversion but they admit these may have been exaggerated because there was no 'operational analysis' of the alternate routes and this could cause the estimates to prove exaggerated.

In other words the level of service might, or might not, decline on the competing free route.

C&M were saying, in effect, their estimates of diversion are quite crude because their level of analysis didn't get into the impacts on the free alternate route and changes in travel times there.

If the level of service did decline then the problem would be self-correcting since the free alternative would become less attractive. If the free alternative was able to handle the extra traffic without much increase in travel times, then where's the problem?

Far from being a simple 'bad,' diversion has its benefits, major in some cases, in freeing up the traffic and improving the level of service on the tolled road, providing motorists with more value for their money.

The whole point of dynamic pricing after all is to divert that volume of traffic from entering which might otherwise cause traffic flow to break down - in order to maintain a high level of service.

People diverted may be diverted by tolls not only in route traveled but diverted in time to less crowded times, or diverted in mode to carpooling or a bus. Those are positive diversions if prices tend to follow costs.

Alternate routes allowing diversion

From the North Carolina border north 22 miles to Jarratt I-95 is closely paralleled by US301, also known as the Blue Star Highway. Up to Emporia it is a rural 2-lane road. In Emporia it is the main street with many signals.

North of Emporia to Jarratt US301 is a 4-lanes surface arterial with farms, businesses and houses fronting onto it, most of it is divided. It is probably 35mph to 55mph. From Jarratt north the old US301 was partly incorporated into I-95. It's northbound roadway made into southbound I-95, given overpasses and other upgrades to convert it to interstate standard, while new construction built I-95 northbound. US301 soutbound was striped for 2-way traffic and splayed out at interstate interchanges. This melding of the interstate with the local surface arterial continues a distance toward Petersburg. (CORRECTION)

From south of Petersburg to North of Richmond the alternative to I-95 is I-295 almost 50 miles long, mostly 2x2 lane expressway though widening to 2x4 lanes at its northern end.

I-295 is three to eight miles to the east of I-95 forming an eastern (and northern) belt route for the Richmond-Petersburg metro area.  Its whole function is to take through traffic off I-95 so they don't have to go through the middle of the Richmond metro area.

I-295's average annual daily traffic is 49k/day so it is well used, but seldom congested. Speed maps show it over 55mph during peaks on I-95 when speeds are 25mph and below.  If I-295 were to need widening it could be tolled to do that, and to manage traffic. Diversion to I-295 is not a problem but a rational response to relative travel conditions and costs.

North of Richmond US301 continues northeast to cross into Maryland on the Harry Nice Bridge and a different route.

Here US1 or Jefferson Davis Highway follows I-95 closely - or to be more accurate historically - I-95 was built to closely follow the route of US1 from Richmond all the way to the northern Virginia suburbs and Alexandria where it goes through the historic center. It is mostly 2x2 lanes surface arterial without any control of access or grade separation. In many places it is without a median even. And there are intersections - some signalized, some not - every few hundred feet except in rare rural parts. It is 20 to 55mph.

With I-95 improved to provide an improved level of service the attractiveness of toll-free rides on an already tedious US1 seems doubtful - for all but short local trips.

Regardless it seems serious VA/I-95 tolling was abandoned on account of diversion paranoia.

ORT+cash proposed

The VDOT application to the Feds proposes an expensive toll collection system with open road tolling (ORT) plus cash toll collection. Their rationale: "Because not all travelers will have an E?ZPass transponder, VDOT will also provide facilities for payment of tolls with cash."

They haven't got the news in Richmond of cameras and video tolling?

The mainline toll plaza would have 2x2 ORT lanes and two staffed lanes each direction for cash. Ramps for two interchanges north and south will be tolled at a total of eight ramps at half the rates of the mainline plaza - to discourage diversions around the mainline plaza using US301 which closely follows I-95.

$60m for one remote toll point

The ramp tolls would be one lane E-ZPass, one lane unstaffed with coin and bill acceptors and credit card swipe.

Capital cost of all this toll collection system is put at a substantial $60m with operating costs of $5m to $6m/year.

COMMENT: You have to think the Feds will be wondering whether this plan from Virginia is a serious proposal, tolls play such a small role.

Since this is the last 'slot' in the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program they'll have to be asking if this isn't a waste of a scarce slot.

Little Rhode Island's plans for tolling their segment of I-95 are way more serious than this proposal from Virginia. Connecticut and South Carolina too would make better use of the opportunity to toll I-95. And it bears no comparison with North Carolina's plans.

Sheer fantasy is the notion that a 'gap' of $9 billion 2015 to 2040 is going to be filled with new tax money.

Resistance to higher taxes is much stronger than resistance to tolls.

Fuel taxes are in decline, so there will be less tax money, not more... let alone a huge amount more as VDOT's application suggests.

TOLLROADSnews 2012-09-05

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