Spend the rest of it

Published 9:21 pm Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The figurative line connecting the Martin Luther King Freeway extension in Portsmouth to the Executive Mansion in Richmond runs, as it turns out, right through Suffolk.

That line is Route 460, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration announced last week would be contributing $78 million to help offset the tolls that had been planned for the MLK extension when it’s complete.

The MLK tolls had been part of a package of user fees negotiated by the administration of Virginia’s last governor, Bob McDonnell, in exchange for the expressway extension, rehabilitation of the Downtown Tunnel and expansion and rehabilitation of the Midtown Tunnel. Elizabeth River Crossings, the conglomerate to whom McDonnell mortgaged the future of Hampton Roads, accepted a $78-million payout for the promise not to toll the MLK Expressway.

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That’s great news for the people of Portsmouth, who also have won the promise that ERC will work to reduce the economic impact of the tolls to that city. Portsmouth merchants and government officials have complained that the imposition of tolls on both the Downtown and Midtown tunnels has reduced to a trickle the number of people coming to the city to shop, dine and be entertained. Suffolk, too, has seen slight declines since the tolls went into effect, according to at least one study.

All it took to accomplish this feat was a $78-million payoff. One can hardly help but wonder what kind of investment would have been required to keep tolls off the table with ERC to begin with. How much would it have cost McDonnell and his Department of Transportation — and, by extension, taxpayers — to convince ERC to wait until the tunnel projects were complete to levy tolls or to toll only one of the tunnels or to toll neither of them or to accept something less than a guaranteed 13-percent profit margin each year? The list of possibilities suggested by McDonnell’s bad deal goes on and on.

Fortunately, the former governor unwittingly also left something of a rainy day fund in the guise of McDonnell’s Folly, the now defunct Route 460 replacement project that was killed after McAuliffe took office and learned there was little or no chance the project would receive federal environmental approval. The state’s Route 460 fund provided the cash for McAuliffe’s most recent deal with ERC.

We can think of no better use of the funds that had been set aside for McDonnell’s Folly than to pay down the cost of the burden he left for Hampton Roads. The MLK Expressway should be just the first step. Even if McAuliffe is unable to negotiate a complete removal of tunnel tolls, he should use the rest of the Route 460 money to reduce the costs as much as possible.

Spend the rest of that money to help the people of Tidewater, not harm them.