Ten years from now, Interstate 95 will likely be more congested and in need of repair and widening, but funding should not come from a toll, local tourism and economic development officials told consultants hired by the state Tuesday.
Officials from the tourism industry, business leaders and city officials said at a group session they were invited to that it is inherently unfair to fund the highway improvements from a toll, and that a toll would hurt tourism and the local economy.
Cambridge Systematics is sponsoring the small group sessions and will be making a report back to its employer, the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The firm held one of those Tuesday afternoon at the Frederick E. Turnage Municipal Building.
Paula Dowell, a principal with the firm who leads its transportation economics practice, listened to the comments and said they will relay them back to the DOT.
She said the firm will not be making a recommendation on whether a toll should be implemented.
“Our job is to provide information and to do an objective third-party, unbiased analysis of the economic impacts of the alternatives for I-95,” Dowell said.
The firm was hired after the N.C. General Assembly last year ordered the DOT to conduct a thorough analysis of the economic assessment of a tolling proposal.
Dowell said the study will evaluate the economic impact of continuing to maintain the interstate as usual using existing resources versus the widening and a major highway improvement project outlined in a DOT proposal, which is estimated to cost $4.4 billion.
Dowell said the tolling proposal is only one funding option on the table to fund the improvements.
“We will be looking at the economic impact of tolls, but just as importantly, we want to look at the economic impact of other potential funding mechanisms,” she said.
The audience of about 20 who met in a third floor conference room expressed concerns about funding equity, noting that this region has not historically gotten its fair share of state or federal transportation funding compared to the larger cities.
First Carolina Management President Jerry Dimeo said an interstate toll would divert traffic to other roads, hurting the tourism industry in Nash County.
The DOT has come out with a preliminary estimate that as much as 30 percent of the interstate traffic might be diverted as a result of the toll.
That could spell disaster for the tourism industry, said Dimeo, the president of the company that manages the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn in Rocky Mount.
Hospitality revenues were $26 million in Nash County in 2012. A 30 percent diversion of traffic could mean an $8 million reduction in that amount, Dimeo said.
Dowell the 30 percent number is being evaluated as part of the study.
“We’re building a new simulation model to really look at the diversion issue, because that will be a key driver in the analysis,” she said. “We just felt that it needed to be studied more.”
Dowell asked the focus group to explain how they envision the state of the interstate in 10 years.
John Gessaman, CEO of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, said the interstate is a major north-south corridor in the United States, so traffic can only increase as the population of those areas increases.
“I don’t see how it cannot grow and there is no alternative (route),” he said. “One of the issues, I think, is that if you have a wreck on 95, you’re stuck.”
Clint Williams, director of operations for Longstreet Wide Format Printing & Cutting, said after the meeting that he was impressed by Cambridge Systematics.
“I will say (Cambridge Systematics) was very unbiased,” he said. “I was impressed. I’ve been in bunch of focus groups. I’ve been around bunch of economists in the past. She did a fair job.”