Council responds to transportation woes

Published 10:46 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Suffolk City Council on Wednesday pressed the General Assembly for a dedicated revenue source for transportation in the state.

After hearing information that the state will run out of transportation revenue by 2017 if no action is taken, the City Council voted to approve a resolution calling on the state legislature to take action immediately “to help solve our regional and statewide transportation issues.”

“This is a state issue,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said after the vote. “We’re about 30 years behind in transportation in Virginia. We need to step up as a state and do the right thing.”

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The presentation came from Dwight Farmer, executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization. It focused on tolls proposed on the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels and the MLK extension project but also touched on other chokepoints, possible methods of relieving them and the astronomical growth anticipated in the region during the next 20 years.

Farmer said that nearly half the population growth in Hampton Roads, including the Peninsula, from 2000 to 2034 is expected to be in the Southside communities west of the Elizabeth River. With the Peninsula excluded, the western communities would see 71 percent of the population growth and two-thirds of the employment growth in the same period.

“This is unprecedented,” Farmer said. “We’re on the dawn of a very big change in the way this region grows.”

But with growth comes more traffic on roads, and with that comes the need for maintenance — something that has already been ignored for decades, Farmer said.

“In 1992 and 1993, it was my personal and professional view we were starting to touch into deferred maintenance,” he said. “We knew our bridges were not being maintained, and we could prognosticate the long-term effects.”

Those predictions have now come to pass, he said, with the closure of the Jordan Bridge and the situation at the tunnels.

The tolls on the Downtown Tunnel, Midtown Tunnel and MLK Extension project were initially expected to begin this summer. They 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 rate currently is proposed at $1.84 for cars at the tunnels during peak hours, which are roughly from 5:30 to 9 a.m. and 2:30 to 7 p.m., Farmer said. On the MLK Extension, tolls would be $1 for non-tunnel users and 50 cents for tunnel users. The toll rate would escalate based on increases in costs for operations and maintenance.

City Council members said traffic in Hampton Roads is a state issue because much of the state’s commerce moves through the Port of Virginia.

“The people in Grundy, Va., are getting the stuff from the port,” Councilman Charles Parr said. “It doesn’t just magically appear in Walmart.”

Farmer said Midtown Tunnel tolls have been discussed since at least 1969, when it was included in the 1985 Major Thoroughfare Plan. It then showed up in the Hampton Roads 2021 Long-Range Transportation Plan created in 2001.

Since then, two different funding avenues have failed for different reasons. Voters turned down a referendum that would have raised sales taxes in the region to pay for transportation, and the Virginia Supreme Court decided the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority was unconstitutional.

The way leaders see it, that left nothing but tolls on the table.

“They worked with what they had to work with,” Johnson said Wednesday. She said she will not criticize the governor and transportation officials for making the agreement but added that the solution should be a combination of number of dedicated funding avenues.

Some City Council representatives inquired about the possibility of reducing the tolls. But Farmer said even a 10-cent reduction would cost $100 million.

Alternatively, a 1-percent hike on the sales tax just in Hampton Roads would have more than paid for the project, he said.

As much as nobody wants to talk about tolls or taxes, the cost of doing nothing could be steep as well, Farmer said. Companies may stop doing business in Virginia or shipping through the port if they have to contend with the backups much longer.

“There’s going to be some shift (with tolls),” he said. “But if we do nothing, you’ll see the same thing.”