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Tolls Rising Again? Powhite May Jump 15 Cents 

RMA General Manager Robert M. Berry emphasizes that the toll increase is only a possibility, and that it may be years before the RMA's board of directors makes any decision on the matter.

Raising the 50-cent tolls on the Downtown Expressway and at Powhite's main plaza just south of the James River is a sensitive topic. Chesterfield County residents howled in 1997, the last time a toll increase was announced to pay for the new SmartTag system. Despite the efforts of county officials to negotiate another solution, in 1998 the tolls on the expressway and the Forest Hill interchange rose from 35 cents to 50 cents. The Boulevard Bridge toll and ramp tolls went up by a nickel.

"No, I wouldn't be happy at all about raising tolls," says Kelly E. Miller, vice chairman of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Miller says he'd have to know more details to comment, but "I can tell you this," he says — the Chesterfield board would want to be involved in any toll discussions.

For years, the RMA has planned to build a "split plaza" on the Powhite to allow users of the electronic SmartTag to drive through gateless toll lanes without slowing down.

At the board's monthly meeting last week, RMA staff explained that estimated construction costs for the new Powhite plaza had risen by about $4 million in the past six months to $20.14 million. An extra cash lane, the rising cost of asphalt, new signs and a larger office building at the site all combined to push up the price. Road maintenance costs for the next nine years are estimated at almost $80 million.

The RMA has seen toll revenue from the Downtown Expressway, the Powhite Parkway and the Boulevard Bridge rise by 7 percent over the last year, but increasing use of the toll-free Route 288 has squeezed the authority's cash flow. The state, not the RMA, pockets tolls on the Powhite south of Chippenham Parkway.

Still, with more traffic flowing through the Downtown Expressway than ever before, the RMA has 160,000 to 170,000 cars pass through its tolls everyday.

Given that future cost estimates for the new plaza and other projects may climb 20 percent each year, while RMA toll revenue increases at about 1 to 2 percent each year, "you don't have to be a fiscal genius to figure out there's a collision coming sometime soon," observed RMA board member Gerald McCarthy, who also serves on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. S
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