A coalition of business owners who are staunchly opposed to the concept of tolling Interstate 95 are confident they have the N.C. General Assembly on their side.
And they are asking the legislative body for help to quash the proposal.
They have asked the Republican-dominated legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory to direct the N.C. Department of Transportation to withdraw its request to the Federal Highway Administration to allow the tolling of the interstate to pay for widening and improving the highway.
After the N.C. DOT requested the toll, the Federal Highway Administration included Interstate 95 among three tolling pilot projects nationwide.
Without being included in that pilot project, the tolling proposal for Interstate 95 would be illegal under federal law, said Lori Medlin, the president of the Halifax County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“That is our goal, to get the slot in the pilot program withdrawn,” said Medlin, a board member of the No Tolls I-95 Coalition. “We’re fighting it really hard. We’ve sent letters to the legislature and governor, and we’re hoping to hear back from them in March.”
She said she does not know if every legislator in North Carolina opposes the tolls, but many do.
Tolling the interstate would put Eastern North Carolina at a competitive disadvantage in business recruitment, she said.
An Atlanta consulting firm hired by the DOT has cancelled a series of focus group meetings it organized for coalition members this month.
The one in Rocky Mount was originally cancelled but has been rescheduled after more tolling opponents accepted the invitation in recent days, said Scott Aman, owner of New Dixie Oil Corp. and treasurer of the coalition on Tuesday morning.
He said the meeting has been rescheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight in the Frederick E. Turnage Municipal Building.
The meetings, with the exception of one held Monday in Benson, were cancelled due to a lack of response, the consulting firm Cambridge Systematics Inc. stated in an email.
Coalition members, which include a wide range of business and hospitality establishment owners, continue to be dead set against the tolling proposal, Aman said.
Aman said McCrory and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis oppose the singling out of Interstate 95 in North Carolina for tolling.
“We’ve won some battles but we have not won the war,” he said. “It really is really and truly a serious long-term overall state funding problem. There is no sense making it out to be a one-area issue.”
N.C. Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, is among the legislators staunchly opposed to the tolling of the interstate.
Collins said Monday that he has had conversations with legislators representing districts all along the interstate who are opposed to the tolling proposal.
He said he can’t envision the proposal getting the green light from the General Assembly.
“I don’t foresee anything moving,” he said.
In fact, he said, he asked researchers to provide him with wording to 2005 legislation that gave the DOT the power to toll existing interstates.
“I’m contemplating drafting a bill to rescind that (authorization), Collins said. “I want to talk it over with leadership and make sure everyone is on the same page.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation last year authorized an economic assessment of the impacts of its proposal to pay for a $4.4 billion widening and overhaul of Interstate 95 by collecting tolls.
The General Assembly last year ordered the N.C. Department of Transportation to conduct a new study that would consider, among other things, the economic impact of tolling the present road on the residents and businesses along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Kristine O’Connor, a DOT project development engineer who is overseeing tolling planning, said Monday that the DOT is not going to come back to the legislature with a recommendation about whether to toll or not toll the interstate. She said different options would be presented. She said she is hoping the study will be completed by the end of April.
“It is addressing the economic impact of improving 95 or keeping it sort of business as usual,” she said.