Back in the business of tolls

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, January 4, 2014

Like many of you, I am old enough to remember when Tidewater was a veritable spider’s web of tolled roads, bridges and tunnels — when just about any trip into “the city” (my New York friends mock me when I call any place in Virginia by that name) required change in your pocket or a quick search under the seat for a couple of dimes and a nickel.

There were tolls on the tunnels, tolls on the narrow and frightening James River Bridge, tolls on “Route 44” in Virginia Beach and at all the exit points along that road where you might hope to avoid paying for the privilege of driving it.

I remember wondering as a child what kind of lousy job it must have been to sit inside those little exit toll baskets all day, naively ignorant of the fact that they were automated. I also remember the days when tunnel attendants patrolled the tubes constantly, and the highlight of a trip to Norfolk was getting one of them to wave as you passed by. Talk about terrible working conditions!

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I can recall the time, years later, when I drove across the hump on what’s now I-264, where the tollbooths used to be, and had to explain to friends from out of town that we were crossing an old pedestrian tunnel built for the toll collectors who used to work there.

“There were tollbooths here? Where are they now?” they asked. “Gone,” I said proudly. “The road’s paid for now.”

Now, a generation or two has grown up in a place they no longer call Tidewater and without any memory of life when there were tolls on the major roads and river crossings in the area. They’ve taken their seats behind the wheel and found themselves waiting to get through the tunnels, and they’ve joined the rest of us in the perpetual frustration that is traffic in Hampton Roads.

And, after decades of arguing about what to do and of unsuccessfully begging other parts of the commonwealth to help pay for a solution, generations of area commuters will once again get used to the idea of including tolls in the weekly family budget. They’ll have E-ZPass, so there won’t be any need to scrounge for change under the car seat anymore, but the bank account will feel no less pain for the ease of the debits.

With tunnel tolls set to be imposed for 58 years, my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be the first with any hope of driving around Hampton Roads (or whatever it’s called by then) without having their bank accounts charged.

Many things have changed in the past 58 years, and many more will change during the next 58. I wonder whether folks will even have to drive to work by then.

And if they do, I wonder whether they’ll be able to get the robot tunnel attendant to wave at them?