STONY CREEK, Va. — Would you pay $11 for a $3 hamburger?
Frank Jackson, the mayor of Stony Creek and its nearly 200 people, didn't think so.
But if Gov. Bob McDonnell succeeds in imposing tolls on Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border and the highway's entry and exit ramps, that could happen, Jackson argues.
"And it's just going to kill businesses like the Tastee Hut," he said.
The Tastee Hut is unpretentious, throwback fast food — a squat, white hut off an I-95 frontage road just north of Exit 31, midway between Richmond and the Carolina line. No dining room; customers either buy carry-out or use the picnic tables off to one side. Park in the gravel lot, walk to the window, order a cheeseburger or pulled-pork barbecue sandwich, add a Dr. Pepper, maybe an order of fries and you're set for another 250 miles.
Jackson leaned against his pickup truck Thursday evening outside the Tastee Hut, his chocolate brown retriever Sam in the back, and watched vehicles whisk past on I-95 just a few hundred feet away. He sweeps his arm toward Exit 31 and launches into a riff he's delivered many times the past few months.
"Suppose there's a guy driving north, say from Georgia. He pays the $4 toll, comes to Exit 31 there and pulls off looking for something to eat. That's $2 to exit. He comes over here to the Tastee Hut, gets a hamburger, then gets back on the interstate, and that's another $2. That's $8 extra dollars, so the price of that burger just went from $3 to $11," Jackson said.
It's worse for big rigs. A six-axle tractor-trailer would pay a $15 toll, and $7.50 to exit or re-enter. That would drive total outlays for a Tastee Hut burger with all the trimmings past $35 for some long-haul truckers.
Toll talk in hardscrabble farming counties such as Greensville, Sussex, Prince George and the city of Emporia can get folks steamed. That was clear at Virginia Department of Transportation informational meetings last week in Sussex and the Richmond suburb of Chester. A third is set for 6 p.m. Monday in Fredericksburg.
Louis Wingard of Petersburg figured he'd done all his math and calculated total tolls driving I-95 to and from work at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt would be $2,080 a year. Then Mayor Jackson reminded Wingard that he'd omitted the $2 on-ramp and off-ramp fees.
Chester Carter, who has owned or operated a towing company and garage along with a convenience store for 32 years in Sussex, says he's bothered by more than just the fact that local people would have to pay tolls on top of other travel costs to go to and from school and jobs — even though they're eligible for discounted tolls. It's not just the damage it could have on businesses like his or the Tastee Hut. It's not even the dangerous congestion on parallel Route 301 from people determined to avoid tolls.
"The state came to our area — one of the poorest in the state — and they decided to try it here because they thought they could just push it through," Carter said.
He stopped a second to think it over, and his disposition got downright flinty.
"We voted for this governor and now he's gone and picked the wrong fight at the wrong time with the wrong people," he said. "You ought not try to pick on the weakest man."
VDOT acknowledges that the $1.5 billion in estimated revenue over 30 years from the I-95 tolls won't come close to covering all the maintenance needs along the heavily traveled primary traffic artery linking Miami and Boston through Washington, D.C., New York City and the densely populated northeast corridor.
Tolls are among the few options left for a state where anti-tax General Assembly Republicans for years have defeated proposals to boost the primary state transportation revenue source — the 17½-cent gasoline tax last raised in 1986. The largest major cash infusion since then came in 2010, after a private audit McDonnell commissioned turned up more than $1 billion sitting idle in VDOT accounts that McDonnell put into one-time improvements. He plans to unveil a new transportation-funding measure soon that he will present to the 2013 General Assembly.
The needs are compelling. Eighty percent of the bridges on I-95 in Virginia are at least 40 years old. Seventy-two percent of I-95 pavement needs maintenance or replacing. Sixty-seven percent of the interstate in Virginia will be at or over capacity by 2035.
Mike Estes, who heads VDOT's study of tolls, noted that in the mid-1980s, it cost about $50 per square foot to build a new bridge; now, it's quadruple that and rising.
At the earliest, the state would begin collecting tolls on I-95 in 2015. But the project doesn't have the green light yet. First, the federal government would have to approve it, something that's by no means assured. Among the project's most powerful and outspoken foes is U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a six-term Republican unhappy that his 4th District was singled out for the pilot tolling project.
"I've weighed in about as strongly as I can," Forbes said Friday, noting letters to the Federal Highway Administration urging it to reject the project. "I think the ray of sunshine we have is that they at least see something there because they continue to delay the approval that everybody thought would have been forthcoming."
Environmental impact studies must be completed. And there is at least one bill awaiting the legislature that would require governors to get legislative approval to toll existing highways.
At least 23 cities, counties or towns are on record opposing it, including the cities of Richmond, Petersburg and Colonial Heights, and the counties of Hanover and Spotsylvania.
Dorothy Cox of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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