One month later, how have tolls impacted Hampton Roads?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Hampton Roads started paying tolls at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels one month ago. At the beginning of the month, Elizabeth River Tunnels reported decreased traffic at both tunnels. Many drivers chose the Gilmerton and High Rise bridges over paying the tolls.

10 On Your Side wanted to know if that pattern would stick. ERT spokeswoman Leila Rice said numbers for the month of February will be released early next week.

10 On Your Side also asked Chesapeake Police if officers experienced more problems near the High Rise and Gilmerton bridges. Public Information Officer Kelly O’Sullivan didn’t have an answer for us over the weekend, but a local auto repair shop owner said there’s no doubt traffic has increased.

“A lot of traffic, all through the day,” said John Edwards, who owns Creek Auto Repair on South Military Highway. “Normally, it would die out some in the middle of the day.”

Edwards saw more crashes in front of his shop since the tolls began. He also believes he’ll eventually get more business.

“We’ve actually been extremely busy since the first of February,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s tied completely to the tolls or just word-of-mouth. It’s hard to put a number on it right now.”

Edwards said he’ll have a better idea if business stays up several months from now. He said Military Highway is already in bad shape, and believes traffic will only make it worse.

Toll protesters said changing traffic patterns aren’t the only problem brought on by the tolls. A small group of protesters met for the second month in a row Saturday, and said they plan on coming back the first of every month.

With tolls firmly in place in Hampton Roads, what do they hope to accomplish?

“We’ve already accomplished a few things,” said Michelle Blake, who has donated money to the cause. “They delayed the tolls for a year, there’s been a temporary reduction in tolls, they’re talking about dropping the cost of the transponder.”

The tolls don’t personally affect Karen Smith, a retiree, but she said she worries about Portsmouth and its residents. Smith believes that people will ignore the gradual increase in toll prices.

“I think it will be a slow throttling of business,” she said. “Portsmouth is kind of struggling already, but gradually, bit by bit, another company, another store, another restaurant closes down.”

Blake may not think removing all tolls in Hampton Roads is a realistic goal, but she does think the protesters can help make a difference.

“What we’re hoping is that we’re going to do a partial termination of that contract, because they should. It’s a bad deal,” she said. “Obviously, they can’t stop the tunnel construction, it’s underway. But there are parts of the contract they can stop, they need to stop, they need to rework the contract. They need to get the toll off the downtown tunnel, because there’s no construction there.”

In a news release sent out Saturday, ERT said it had started mailing out initial toll invoices to Pay By Plate customers who have been using the tolled tunnels since Feb. 1.

The news release states that Pay By Plate customers will see a graphic in their invoice highlighting the amount of money they could have saved if they used E-ZPass. ERT said it plans to waive 50 percent of the processing fee for all Pay By Plate customers who convert to E-ZPass or show proof they have already obtained a transponder. Customers must pay their toll invoice within the 30-day period to be eligible, and the offer applies only to Feb. 2014 transactions.

Call 855-ERT-ROAD or go to the Elizabeth River Tunnels Customer Service Center at 700 Port Centre Parkway in Portsmouth for more information about the deal.

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