Virginians asked to fund transportation projects

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 28, 2002

Voters will be making a decision on Nov. 5 that will impact the quality of life for more than a generation of Hampton Roads residents.

Voters in Suffolk and across the region are being asked whether they will support a 1-cent sales tax increase, from 4.5 cents to 5.5 cents per dollar, to pay for $7.7 billion dollars in road projects over the next two decades.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Referendum proposes using 100 percent of the money made from the tax increase to pay off more than $6 billion in bonds to fund the improvements. If passed, the tax would end when the bonds are repaid in about 35 years.

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The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission would have control over the fund’s purse strings. The HRPDC would contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation to build the roads.

The Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce is spearheading efforts to educate residents as well as the region’s business community. Last week, the Suffolk branch sponsored two community meetings, each of which drew approximately 10 people.

The local office has also established a speaker’s bureau to address civic and business organizations on the benefits of passing the referendum.

&uot;This is a complex issue and people need to understand it before they go to the polls,&uot; said Douglas Naismith, president of the Suffolk chamber. &uot;When you ask people to vote themselves a tax increase, the natural tendency is to vote against it.

&uot;This decision will have tremendous benefits for everybody in Hampton Roads, … not just businesses, for decades to come.&uot;

Traditionally, road construction has been the state’s financial responsibility, said Naismith.

The state’s ongoing budget crunch makes it highly unlikely that these projects would be funded in the foreseeable future without the referendum.

&uot;The state is having financial difficulties and the funds simply aren’t there,&uot; he said. &uot;There’s no money to get these projects done any other way.

&uot;The only way it will get done will be if we initiate a plan and are willing to provide the funding locally to get it done.&uot;

In a rare move last year, the General Assembly voted to give residents the opportunity to determine whether they would be willing to foot the bill for six projects over the next 24 years.

The projects and their estimated costs are:

*Widening U.S. 460 – $618 million. The road would be rebuilt to interstate standards from Bowers Hill in Chesapeake to the Suffolk Bypass. A new four-lane highway would be built from the west end of the Suffolk Bypass to the Isle of Wight/Southampton County line.

*A third bridge-tunnel connecting South Hampton Roads and the Peninsula – $4.3 billion. Two sets of bridges and tunnels, with lanes reserved for transit or HOV, would run from Norfolk International Terminals to Craney Island in Portsmouth, then parallel to the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.

*Widening Interstate 64 on the Peninsula – $1.1 billion. The highway would be expanded from four to six lanes, plus two HOV lanes, from Bland Boulevard in Newport News to the James City County/New Kent County line.

*Improving the Midtown Tunnel and the Martin Luther King Freeway – $660 million. A two-lane tunnel would be built parallel to the existing tunnel, and Martin Luther King Freeway would be extended to I-264.

*The Southeastern Parkway and Greenbelt – $870 million. A new 19-mile, six-lane parkway, including HOV lanes, would be built from I-264 in Virginia Beach to the Oak Grove Connector in Chesapeake.

n*Improving mass transit – $200 million. An additional $10 million a year for 20 years would be spent on buses or some type of passenger rail, possibly light rail, high-speed rail or magnetic levitation. Unlike the other proposals, a plan has not yet been developed for how the money would be spent.

It’s important the people look at transportation as a regional problem, Naismith said. In the long run, road projects that improve traffic flow through the Midtown or make traveling between Virginia Beach and Chesapeake easier will enhance the quality of life for all Hampton Roads residents.

&uot;About 45 percent of us (in Hampton Roads) work outside the jurisdiction in which we live,&uot; Naismith said. &uot;An untold number of us travel the roads outside our own cities for recreation, education and entertainment.&uot;

Money received through the referendum will not reduce the amount the localities typically receive for road maintenance and construction, he said.

&uot;Funding this doesn’t mean the Kings Fork Bridge won’t be replaced or that other traffic bottlenecks won’t be taken care of,&uot; Naismith said.

&uot;This is designed as a regional system that will facilitate the flow of traffic throughout the region,&uot; he continued. &uot;With the exception of the Southeastern Expressway, they are really just expansions of existing roadways.&uot;

Regional road improvements will enhance the region’s economic development efforts, Naismith said. They will also play a critical role if Hampton Roads should have to be evacuated for any reason.

&uot;It is going to enable all of us to get where going faster and safer,&uot; he said. &uot;

For business looking for sites, the highway infrastructure plays a major role in making location decisions, he said.

&uot;Businesses naturally shy away from an area where the transportation system is clogged,&uot; Naismith said. &uot;Time is money.&uot;

Some opponents have argued they would rather see the users of the highway pay for the work, possibly by charging tolls or implementing a gas tax.