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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a plan Jan. 8 to add tolls on the I-81 corridor between Winchester and Bristol to fund a $2.2 billion in improvements for the heavily travelled interstate. Owners of small trucks and automobiles would be able to purchase an annual unlimited pass for a fixed $30 fee under his proposal.

The idea for the tolls is to feed a dedicated “I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund” to fund the upgrades along the 325-mile stretch of roadway, which include adding a third lane in high-traffic areas, widening shoulders, making curves safer and adding technology to improve traffic flow. Virginia is also looking at federal money to supplement the toll revenue.

Love them or hate them, the political allure of tolling is obvious. Easing or eliminating the need to raise taxes to fund expensive road improvements while shifting the cost to those who most directly use the interstates sits well with some constituents, particularly those who live in other parts of the state.

Tolls also generate income from visitors and long-haul truckers who otherwise might bring little revenue to the region. Coupled with low-cost annual passes for locals, tolls would effectively raise money from those who most benefit from improvements to the north-south route.

Regional taxes and tolls have become a favorite way to fund road improvements. Northern Virginians are familiar with this strategy, which is already in practice on Interstates 95 and 66. The I-95 tolls, in place since 2014, operate in a public-private partnership with Transurban, an Australian company that describes itself as “one of the world's largest toll-road operators.”

While outsourcing toll operations is not unique, Virginia’s arrangement on the I-95 corridor has thrown up a bit of a roadblock – and thus offers a cautionary tale.

While Prince William County leaders would like to ease a bottleneck on I-95’s non-tolled lanes near the Occoquan bridge – perhaps by opening a shoulder lane to traffic -- the state would need to compensate Transurban for the toll revenue lost if traffic moves more quickly in the “free” lanes.

Local politicians are asking the governor to renegotiate the Transurban contract for that purpose, but the idea of a governor having to go hat-in-hand to a private company to ask permission to make a simple road improvement to alleviate a traffic headache pushes the boundaries of acceptability. The quite possible outcome of his either not succeeding – or having to fork over tens of millions to reach an agreement – might be worse.

As President George W. Bush was fond of telling local politicians: Fix the potholes. For all the infrastructure talk from President Donald Trump during his campaign, for a variety of reasons, little has materialized. Perhaps it is our proximity to Washington that encourages a culture of looking to someone else to pay for what we need and want. The simple fact is, nothing comes for free.

No one is talking about a mix of tolled express lanes and free lanes on I-81. Still, the I-95 experience illuminates a downside of public-private tolling partnerships. There are limits to giving up self-determination to a third party whose only interest is income. Public government may be far from perfect, but at least the people retain control.

Whether for I-95 or I-81, we encourage the governor and Virginia lawmakers to work together to find ways to raise money for road improvements that are truly good for taxpayers now and in the years to come. The people will feel the repercussions of those arrangements long after the politicians have moved on to their next jobs or into retirement. 

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