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By Sean Gorman October 10, 2011

Over promised on tolls

Putting tolls on Interstates were a big part of Bob McDonnell's transportation plan during the 2009 gubernatorial race.

"As Governor, Bob McDonnell will provide an additional dedicated revenue stream for essential transportation needs by tolling travelers coming into Virginia at the North Carolina border on I-95 and I-85," his campaign promised that summer. "These tolls are intended to capture revenue to offset the additional burdens placed on Virginia's roadways by out-of-state tractor trailers and personal vehicles."

The toll on I-95 would fund improvements along that Interstate in Virginia. The fee on I-85 would would be dedicated to expanding Rt. 460, a hurricane evacuation route from Hampton Roads. McDonnell added a note caution: "Ultimately, these proposals will have to be approved by federal authorities," he wrote.

That caveat is crucial in assessing where McDonnell's tolling promise stands. Federal regulations allow Virginia to toll only one Interstate at a time. As a result, the administration is moving ahead on tolling I-95 and ceasing to talk about the prospect for I-85.

Tucker Martin, the governor's communications chief, said McDonnell was aware of the regulations when he made his campaign pledge to toll both Interstates and that's why he stressed the plan hinged on federal cooperation. Martin said the governor hopes to change the rule but has not launched an effort to do so.

Jeff Caldwell, the governor's press secretary, said McDonnell focused on I-95 because it has greater traffic volume, maintenance needs and safety concerns than I-85.

Just months after his inauguration in January 2010, McDonnell announced he had asked the Federal Highway Administration for permission to put tolls on I-95 near the North Carolina border. The administration said the toll -- perhaps $1 or $2 per axle -- could generate $30 million to $60 million a year.

Last month, the Federal Highway Administration conditionally approved the I-95 toll. But the plan still needs to pass through a federal environmental review and Virginia must give Washington specific information on the improvements it would would fund from the toll.

The administration said the proceeds might be used to widen I-95 between I-295 in the Richmond region and the North Carolina border. The money also might be used for shoulder widening, guardrail installation and other improvements on the heavily travelled interstate.

Although the location of the toll has not been finalized, McDonnell may have to abandon his pledge to put it on north-bound lanes of I-95 at the North Carolina border because federal officials want the collections made in areas where the money would be spent. McDonnell is considering building two toll plazas on I-95 -- one between Fredericksburg and Richmond, and the other between Richmond and the North Carolina line.

Our ruling:

McDonnell as a candidate in 2009 pledged to toll two interstates - I-95 and I-85 near the North Carolina border.  

His communications chief says McDonnell knew back then that federal regulations allow Virginia to toll only one Interstate at the time and the candidate was hopeful of changing the rules.

The regulation remains in place, however, and the McDonnell administration has not lobbied to alter it. As a result, the governor is moving ahead with plans to toll I-95 (though not necessarily at the North Carolina border) and is no longer mentioning the idea of tolling I-85.

But the pledge was to toll two interstates, not one  The governor vowed to achieve results that are not allowable. We rate that a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

McDonnell for Governor, "McDonnell unveils comprehensive statewide transportation plan," July 21, 2009.

E-mails from Nancy Singer, spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, September 19-20; October 4.

E-mails from Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for Governor Bob McDonnell, September 13-14, September 20.

Interview with Jeff Caldwell, September 20, 2011.

Interview with Sean Connaughton, Virginia secretary of transportation, October 5, 2011.

U.S. Federal Highway Administration letter to the Virginia Department of Transportation on I-95 tolling, September 14, 2011.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Virginia receives preliminary approval to toll Interstate 95," Sept. 19, 2011.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Governor files application to toll Interstate 95 near North Carolina border,"May 10, 2010.

The Virginian-Pilot, "U.S. 460 plans still need money," April 18, 2010.

The Virginian-Pilot, "Tolls on I-95 in Virginia get conditional approval from feds," September 19, 2011.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "McDonnell wants to charge toll at N.C. line on I-95," May 10, 2010.

Richmond Times Dispatch, "McDonnell seeks tolls on I-95 near N.C. border," May 11, 2010.

Associated Press, "McDonnell supports tolling lanes on I-95 to pay for road maintenance," May 28, 2010.

Roanoke Times, "Toll may soon hit drivers on I-95," May 11, 2010.

The Virginian Pilot, "Welcome to Virginia. Pay up," May 11, 2010.

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