Tunnel relief bills killedPublished 12:40am Sunday, February 2, 2014
By Lauren McClellan
Capital News Service
Two bills that would have provided monetary relief to Hampton Roads area businesses affected by construction on the Downtown Tunnel have been killed in the General Assembly.
Senate Bill 292, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-18th, would have established the Downtown Tunnel Construction Relief Grant Fund. The fund would have provided each local business affected by construction with $10,000 for economic hardship experienced because of the project.
The bill died in committee last week.
House Bill 351, which was introduced by Del. Matthew James, D-80th, aimed to establish a similar fund that would have given affected businesses $1,500 instead of $10,000. James’ bill was killed Jan. 20.
“If you have a company, or you are an employee and depend on people coming to your place for dinner or something like that, (tunnel construction) would be disruptive to your business,” James said. “People would naturally make a decision sometimes and say ‘Well, I don’t know if the tunnel’s open or closed. So, I’m going to go to another (business).’”
James said a survey by the General Assembly and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership found many businesses in the area already are suffering because of the construction.
President Tony Goodwin of the Portsmouth Olde Towne Business Association is concerned with how the construction and new tolls will affect downtown Portsmouth. He said construction essentially “isolates” the area.
“I don’t think I would wish (this situation) on anyone, as my competitors or my enemies,” Goodwin said. “Until people start adjusting their habits — and things balance themselves out — it’s going to be a little bit of a tough road.”
Opponents of the bill were concerned about the future ramifications the fund might have on other communities.
“I was told that the bill was a creative fix, and that they were sympathetic,” James said. “But (opponents of the bill) told me that they were worried about the precedent, even though we had a sunset that once the tunnel opened, the grant would not be available.”
Both bills would have required local business owners to submit applications to prove the Downtown Tunnel construction had affected their business.
Downtown Norfolk Council President Mary Miller said some of the information in the bills was unclear.
“Was it really supposed to be the Downtown Tunnel and the Midtown Tunnel? Or just one?” Miller asked. “Because the Elizabeth River tunnel project involves two tunnels. You have to have a pretty clear — I think — idea of who’s impacted.”
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership estimated the cost of creating the fund would have been around $538,000.