Paying the high cost of roads

Published 7:24 pm Saturday, November 21, 2015

There was a point this week when it looked as if Hampton Roads was destined to become the most-tolled region in the commonwealth.

A consultant’s report to the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission on Thursday recommended tolling nearly every water crossing in the area, along with the proposed Route 460/58 connector in Suffolk, to pay for a group of nine different projects aimed at alleviating Tidewater traffic.

Fortunately cooler heads seem to have prevailed, and the commission will now begin the hard work of determining which projects are truly necessary and which can wait or be ignored altogether.

Email newsletter signup

On the table are regional transportation priorities including Interstate 64 widening, improving the Fort Eustis Boulevard interchange, improving the interchange of Interstate 64 and 264, widening the High Rise Bridge, building the Patriots Crossing, increasing capacity of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, and building the Route 460/58 connector.

Each of those projects would contribute to easing congestion along important transportation corridors, and the results of building them all would be transformative for Hampton Roads. But in the real world of Virginia transportation funding, the reality of paying for them all through tolls on nearly every arterial road in Tidewater could ultimately be crippling to the area’s economy, resulting in a fractured region where folks avoid traveling outside of their own zip codes because of the potentially high cost of doing business in a neighboring community.

Such a result would sink area planners’ hopes for a regional approach to solving many of the problems endemic to Hampton Roads and would ultimately exacerbate the very problems planners hope to alleviate by improving the flow of traffic on area roads.

Tolling everything is surely not the solution.

Just as it’s true that a household must live within its means, it’s also true that a community must do so. It might solve many of your problems to have a new house, a new car and new furniture all at once, but most folks don’t have the money to do so without acquiring huge amounts of debt, the kind of debt that ruins families. In such a situation, average families have to make considered decisions about what’s necessary now and what can wait.

It is a credit to the members of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission that they seem to have recognized the fiscal metaphor intrinsic to transportation funding in Tidewater and quickly determined that there’s little chance of building all nine projects simultaneously.

There is a solution to Hampton Roads’ traffic, but the solution will not be a sort of magic bullet that addresses all needs at once. Transportation planners must recognize that the solution will require long-term thinking and a commitment to picking projects off the list, one or two at a time, for generations.

During that time, it’s likely that needs will change. Some of the projects considered vital today might not be so important 20 years from now, and some that are ranked lower in priority might have to be moved higher in the pecking order as time passes.

There is no substitute in such a planning process for careful, deliberate and ongoing assessment of needs. Having seen the alternative — a network of tolls without equal on the East Coast — HRTAC can now set about the work of doing things the right way.

It won’t be an easy job, and many of us will not live to see it complete, but the end result will be a transportation system that serves the people, rather than one that is served by them.