Bill seeks expansion of Hampton Roads toll relief program for low-income drivers

Published 8:11 pm Wednesday, February 9, 2022

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By Faith Redd

Capital News Service

Lawmakers want to expand the income eligibility of a program that eases the financial burden of paying for the Elizabeth River Crossing tolls in Hampton Roads.

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The legislation would provide financial aid to Portsmouth and Norfolk residents who use Downtown or Midtown tunnels and earn $45,000 or less. Commuters who make less than $30,000 a year are currently eligible for the toll relief program.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, introduced a bill that is in the finance committee. An identical bill, introduced by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, was continued until next year.

“Although the preferable action would be to permanently eliminate tolls, in lieu of that occurring approval and funding, this supplement toll relief program brings this matter a step closer to achieving the goal of who can least afford them,” Lucas said during a recent committee meeting.

Families with income above the federal poverty level but below the basic cost of living threshold are referred to as Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE, households. Upwards of one in three households in South Hampton Roads qualify as an ALICE household, according to The Greater Hampton Roads Community Indicators Dashboard.

Alexander Fella, director of research at Urban Renewal Center and a Norfolk resident, has researched the impact tolls have on Virginia residents. He studies interactions between urbanization and sacred lands.

“Norfolk is in a housing crisis, and it’s colliding with a crisis of infrastructure,” Fella said.

A solution to the financial crisis would be “investing in fast, affordable and reliable public transportation that breaks dependency for working class folks and poor folks to rely on toll roads,” according to Fella.

Members of the Senate committee are uncertain how to fund the measure and uncertain if they can utilize American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“I’ll take it any way I can get it,” Lucas said, referencing the general budget or ARPA funds.

There was a motion to carry the bill over until next year to evaluate the options for potential funding sources.

Lucas asked for a shorter time period to do internal research for funding, saying that other chair members are anticipating a high amount of funding needed.

The bill was passed by for the week after discovering there is no funding proposed in the outgoing governor’s budget and the general consensus that ARPA funding cannot be used for the relief program.

The Virginia Department of Transportation oversees and takes applications for the program. Elizabeth River Crossings, which manages Downtown and Midtown tunnels, funds the relief program. The organization annually contributes $500,000 to the VDOT toll relief program and increased its funding to $3.2 million this year. The funding will then increase 3.5% annually.

The revenue received from the tolls goes to project costs such as financing, designing, building, roads, and continued preservation of the tunnels and the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway Extension.

VDOT and Elizabeth River Crossing joined forces to help alleviate the tolls’ financial hardship on Norfolk and Portsmouth residents, according to VDOT. Eligible commuters receive a credit for 10 trips per week.

Residents must visit one of the E-ZPass Customer Service Centers to apply and provide proof of income and residency at the time of application.

The 2022 application process began Dec. 1 and ends Feb. 15. This year’s program benefits will apply to transactions occurring on or after March 1.

Program funds renew every year, and participants must re-verify their income and residency each year.