Toll plan struck down

Published 10:40 pm Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reaction among state officials was mixed Wednesday after a Portsmouth judge struck down a deal that would have allowed a private company to toll the Downtown and Midtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

A lawsuit, Meeks v. VDOT, filed by a group of citizens and business owners succeeded in convincing Judge James A. Cales Jr. the $2.1 billion deal is inappropriate. Tolls on the tunnels would cost daily commuters about $1,000 a year.

“I was certainly pleased with the judge’s decision, and I thought it was proper,” Delegate S. Chris Jones (R-76th) said Wednesday after hearing of the decision. “I think there were a lot of questions raised when this contract was signed, and it will require a lot of review to see what changes might be made to the PPTA [Public-Private Transportation Act].”

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Jones cited some of the problems most opponents have with the deal — that fact that the Downtown Tunnel will be tolled with no increase in capacity, and the fact that both tunnels will be tolled about three to four years before capacity at the Midtown increases.

Jones fought for a change in the deal and, when that didn’t work, fought for reform to the PPTA, which allows public and private entities to enter into partnerships to get transportation projects done. His reform bills saw mixed success in the 2013 General Assembly session.

“We’ll see what questions [the decision] raises about our existing PPTA and what we might need to do moving down the road,” Jones said.

The office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was less pleased and vowed to appeal the ruling.

“The revenues raised through the tunnel tolls were user fees to be used solely for a single transportation project,” Brian Gottstein, director of communication, wrote in an emailed statement. “As such, we still believe the tolls cannot be considered a tax and that it is completely within VDOT’s authority to set reasonable tolls to pay for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the project. Certainly, we are disappointed with the court’s decision.”

Gottstein warned the ruling could threaten the state’s ability to use public-private partnerships for major projects.

“Many tolled projects could require legislative approval before proceeding, which would mean significantly increased costs and construction delays,” he wrote.