The wrong traffic solution

Published 9:38 pm Saturday, March 24, 2012

There is no question — and there has been no question for many years — that Hampton Roads faces some significant challenges in the present and future without extensive improvements to its transportation infrastructure. With the seven cities that constitute the core of Hampton Roads and the Peninsula divided by rivers and bays and with growth and commuting patterns requiring frequent trips across those rivers by residents in each of those cities, traffic gridlock is inevitable in the absence of real, long-term solutions.

Sadly, Virginia legislators have been unable to come to an agreement on viable solutions in at least two decades of sporadic attention to the problem. Politics and a lack of vision regarding the shared benefits that derive from the ports and the area’s military installations — two of the major contributors to traffic congestion here — have combined to deny any solutions that would result in a sharing of the burden for their cost by the entire state.

Hampton Roads, it would seem, is on its own when it comes to solving the traffic problems that would keep the military in place, the ports busy, taxes flowing into state coffers and jobs readily available, even though failing to solve those problems will hurt the entire commonwealth.

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Perhaps that explains the choice made by the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell to enter into a public-private partnership that would result in a new tube for the Midtown Tunnel. Under the terms of the deal, the multinational private partner would build $2.1 billion in transportation infrastructure to include the new tunnel tube and an extension to the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway. The commonwealth would contribute $362 million to the projects, and the private conglomerate put up the rest of the initial investment.

To pay back that private investment, for the next 58 years those who use either the Downtown or Midtown tunnels or the MLK Extension would pay tolls. The tolls, which could be set up as early as this summer if legislators or the courts do not intervene, would start out at $1.59 for cars during off-peak hours and $1.84 during peak hours; they would be allowed to increase by more than 3.5 percent each year of the contract.

Clearly Gov. McDonnell sought to break the figurative traffic jam that has resulted in legislative gridlock over transportation infrastructure improvements in Hampton Roads, but he appears to have done so without consideration for the needs of those who would be affected most directly by his solution.

Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright has been a vocal opponent of the plan since it was announced. Suffolk’s elected officials have hinted they intend to oppose it in a resolution to be considered in April. And other cities in Hampton Roads are beginning to catch on to the massive tax increase the tolls will represent for many of their citizens.

The noise that opponents are making has made a difference. A Senate committee has voted to submit a budget amendment that would postpone the inception of tolls until 2014, and a lawsuit is in the works to challenge the legality of the plan. With the looming threat of onerous new fees to be levied almost exclusively on Hampton Roads residents, more and more people are realizing that the governor’s solution to the traffic problem here is fatally flawed.

It’s time for McDonnell’s backers in Hampton Roads, in the state legislature and in the Republican Party to sit down with the governor and make him understand not just how much his solution will cost Hampton Roads, but how much it could cost this politically ambitious governor in the future. Folks here will not soon forget or forgive how the governor who once called Virginia Beach home brought foreign companies into Virginia and gave them an E-ZPass for picking citizens’ pockets.