Study predicts change in opposition to tolls

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A local traffic expert thinks now — as the tolls begin at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels — is the perfect opportunity to study attitudes about tolls, traffic congestion and driving patterns. And he has a hypothesis that might surprise you.

Executive Director of the HRTPO Dwight Farmer has spent decades studying the impact of tolls on traffic patterns, and he thinks the significant opposition to the looming tolls could change like a light switch.

“I think almost immediately, overnight, people will change their traffic patterns and will change their time of day usage,” he said. “Once the trip is much more bearable, much more predictable, the question is will the attitudes change?”

The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) has been collecting data on issues like traffic volume, travel speeds, and length of back-ups to see how the tolls could end congestion at peak traffic times at the tunnels.

“What this is, is to take a snapshot at a point in time,” Farmer said. “We want to know what the change is. This study is about the change.”

20 percent of tunnel trips are commutes to work, to home, to school, and 80 percent are discretionary, like pleasure trips, trips to the doctor, trips to the mall, Farmer said. And most of those discretionary trips are in the afternoon.

“Those discretionary trips will change, and will make a difference in the afternoon at the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels, we believe,” Farmer said.

If tolls create less congestion at the tunnels, then negative attitudes against tolls could become positive ones. If congestion doesn’t change when the tolls begin, that is the worst case scenario where most people will remain upset.

“In both the morning and afternoon, what we need is about a 10 percent reduction in the hourly traffic volume to cause most, if not all, of the severe congestion to go away,” Farmer said.

Farmer thinks that will happen in the morning and afternoon at the tunnels, and thinks most of those cars will use other routes to get around: “We also project there will be more traffic on the High Rise Bridge, the Gilmerton Bridge, on the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge, and also at the HRBT on 64.”

Farmer thinks The High Rise and Gilmerton Bridges will get most of that diverted traffic. The bad news: State Senator Kenny Alexander has told us all of those crossings could face possible tolls in the future.

Farmer said this type of study has never been conducted in America, but has been conducted in foreign countries.

Christopher Newport University is also analyzing attitudes about tolls, congestion, and driving patterns. They will compare that with information gathered in the spring after tolls have been implemented.

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