Leaders making moves on tolls

Published 8:55 pm Saturday, March 31, 2012

Suffolk leaders on the city and state level are taking action to influence the General Assembly on the issue of tolls.

The City Council is expected to consider a resolution at Wednesday’s 7 p.m. meeting to call upon the General Assembly to secure a dedicated revenue source for high-priority transportation projects in the area.

The city’s governing body also will hear from Dwight Farmer, executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, during its 4 p.m. work session.

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Meanwhile, Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) hopes to make some headway on the state budget, which includes discussions on the tolls, during the coming week of negotiations.

“It’s my hope that we will be able to make some meaningful progress on the budget,” he said Saturday. “We’re still discussing it in conference.”

The tolls on the Downtown Tunnel, Midtown Tunnel and MLK Extension project were initially expected to begin this summer, but a Senate amendment is on the table to delay them until 2014.

The tolls are the result of a public/private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation and Elizabeth River Crossings, which would profit from the tolls. The fee currently is proposed at $1.84 for cars at the tunnels during peak hours. On the MLK Extension, tolls would be $1 for non-tunnel users and 50 cents for tunnel users.

Jones said he has made an offer to the Senate to redirect money set aside for the U.S. Route 460 project to the tunnel projects.

“My goal is to delay the implementation of the project and reduce the amount of the tolls that are paid,” he said.

If negotiations fall through, Jones said, he would support using the contract’s convenience clause to cancel it altogether.

“I don’t think it’s a good deal as it stands today,” he said.

Jones said he has been working with the governor’s office to work through the negotiations.

During a City Council meeting last month, Mayor Linda T. Johnson said council members have received a number of letters and emails from Suffolk residents concerned about the proposed tolls. She repeated her stated position that there needs to be a dedicated revenue source for Hampton Roads transportation.

“We’ve gotten some that say kill the project; we’ve gotten some that say no tolls; we’ve gotten some that are just adamantly against the (Public-Private Transportation Act),” she said. “We have this whole myriad of suggestions and ways. I understand all of those, but we need a solution.”

The council’s proposed resolution states in part: “We respectfully request the members of the Virginia General Assembly take action immediately to secure a dedicated source of transportation funding for high priority projects in the Hampton Roads region and to help solve our regional and statewide transportation issues.”