Tolls top legislators’ concerns

Published 9:48 pm Monday, April 16, 2012

There was much to discuss during a recap of the 2012 General Assembly session for members of the Suffolk and Portsmouth divisions of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce last week.

But the main thing on the minds of those attending — as well as the five legislators sitting at the front of the room — was tolls, specifically the tolls that have been proposed to finance construction of a new Elizabeth River tunnel tube and an extension of the Martin Luther King Freeway.

“I’ve had more than 10,000 pieces of correspondence just on that one issue,” said Delegate Matthew James, whose 80th District includes a portion of Suffolk.

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“No one is knocking the project,” he added. “But this deal is a bad deal. The contract is flawed.”

The contract he referred to was finalized on Monday (see related story), as Gov. Bob McDonnell and a private consortium closed a deal whereby the commonwealth would pay $422 million of the $2.1 billion cost of the project.

Elizabeth River Crossings, the multi-national consortium working with the state under the authority of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act, would front the rest of the cost, recouping it from tolls that would start at $1.59 for cars using any of the Elizabeth River tunnels. Those tolls could increase by 3.5 percent each year of the 58-year contract, according to the agreement.

McDonnell announced Monday that he would ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board to contribute $100 million to the project to help postpone toll collections until January 2014. The original contract terms would have allowed tolls beginning this summer.

“What has happened with this deal is almost a perfect storm,” Delegate Chris Jones, Suffolk, said to those attending Thursday’s Chamber of Commerce meeting.

“We were not privy to the details of the plan,” he added. “If the terms had come to light ahead of time, this never would have happened. The governor and I have had some very spirited discussions about it.”

Jones had put forward a proposal to take money that has been earmarked for construction of a new Route 460 — another public-private partnership proposed by McDonnell that will require hefty tolls for users — and use it to pay down the cost of the project.

The governor has pushed hard for the Route 460 project, though, and Jones said his calls to the administration’s top transportation officials were going unreturned since he’d made his proposal.

Route 460, agreed Senator Louis Lucas, whose district stretches through a part of Suffolk, “is Alaska’s version of a bridge to nowhere,” alluding to a scorned project in Alaska that received a $223-million earmark, despite the fact that it would have accessed an island with only a few dozen residents.

Jones offered business leaders little hope that the governor’s deal with ERC could be derailed.

“Once it’s signed, it’s pretty much done,” he said, explaining that the 1995 legislation allowing such public-private partnerships specified that the only party that could terminate the agreement is one who signed the contract — in this case, the governor.

McDonnell’s signature of the contract on Monday could, then, have been the end of hopes that tolls could be avoided.