How new tolls impact traffic flow

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – WAVY.com has obtained information on the most extensive analysis on tolling at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) has analyzed traffic flow at the crossings since tolling during the first week of tolling, which began Feb. 1.

Report: Toll analysis (.pdf)

According to HRTPO, traffic flow during peak hours (5 – 9 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) is down 16 percent at the Downtown Tunnel, down 11 percent at the Midtown Tunnel, up 31 percent at the Gilmerton Bridge and up 8 percent at the High Rise Bridge.

During off-peak hours, traffic flow is down 21 percent at the Midtown Tunnel and 31 percent at the Downtown Tunnel. During the same hours, traffic at the High Rise Bridge has increased by 24 percent and 38 percent at the Gilmerton Bridge.

As you can see, the Gilmerton Bridge is getting the brunt of diverted drivers who refuse to pay tolls at the tunnels.

HRTPO Executive Director Dwight Farmer, who is also a licensed professional traffic engineer, has always thought reducing traffic at the tunnels by even 10 percent would eliminate or greatly reduce congestion, and that has turned out to be true, so far.

“People value their time much more during the rush hour,” Farmer said. “They are more tolerant of a toll during rush hour, and are willing to pay it.”

Farmer says the research shows drivers are still making the off-peak trips, but if toll prices go too high, drivers may not travel through the tunnels at all.

“There is a red flag that we should be cautious of how we price off-peak,” he said. “Those trips can be significantly impacted in a negative way with tolling, specifically if tolling gets high.”

Last year Farmer predicted a light switch event on the first day of tolls: “We thought this would happen … folks who got up, who used the Downtown Tunnel, had no back up on the first working day. The severe congestion went away.”

The early feedback is those using the tolled tunnels are pleased their quality of life has improved. The argument was the Downtown Tunnel should not be tolled because there would be no additional tube built there. It is clear that drivers using the Downtown Tunnel are getting something.

“You are getting no congestion, no congestion, and we think for many people, especially during rush hour, that is very valuable,” Farmer said.

Farmer thinks the anti-toll drivers could come back to the tunnels, if the tolls remain at a reasonable rate: “I think folks are going to realize a dollar during rush hour and 75 cents off-peak actually is better than going ten miles out of your way, spending a $1.50 in gas, and spending 15 to 20 minutes more on the road, and in the end they may come back.”

WAVY.com called to get reaction from Elizabeth River Crossings on the one-week numbers.

Spokeswoman Leila Rice emailed us: “The rate of traffic diversion we’ve seen at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels falls in line with ERC’s projections. The toll rates were lowered by an amendment to our Comprehensive Agreement, which also provided compensation from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, making up the difference in toll revenue.”

It should be noted ERC projections of diversion were based on the higher tolls, which were lowered. One would think with the lower tolls there would be less diversion and not the same anticipated diversion.

Rice continued: “As the private partner with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) delivering this Project under the Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) of 1995, ERC assumes full traffic, revenue and toll collection risk, as well as repayment of all construction loans obtained to finance the Project.”

It could very well be with the diversion we’ve seen so far that ERC may never get to the maximum 13.5 percent return they are able to receive before splitting additional profits with Virginia.

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