ERC: Drivers are returning to tolled tunnels

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Six months after the Downtown and Midtown tunnels were tolled, who is still taking the long way around to avoid them?

WAVY.com is on toll patrol, with some new numbers for the first six months of tolled tunnels. They show the percentage of fewer drivers using Elizabeth River Tunnels as compared to the same month in 2013.

After the first day of weekday tolling in February, 10 On Your Side reported that traffic was about 25 percent lower than usual before the tolls. Now we know nearly 22 percent less vehicles may have gone through the tunnels in February.

“But, by July we’re seeing 10 percent less traffic than we did in July of 2013,” said Leila Rice with Elizabeth River Crossings. “And that’s compared to almost double the diversion we saw at the very beginning of tolling. So, people are coming back. People say ‘I can get to work a lot quicker, I don’t have to factor in what if the tunnel’s backed up,’ and that is beneficial to people. Their time is valuable to them.”

For months, people protested paying tolls for drives they’d made for years, for free. But new numbers show that once the deal was done and since, many drivers have done the math, more and more have bitten the bullet and taken the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, tolls and all.

“It wasn’t smart for me because my job is at the first exit out of the tunnel, so it would have been no point to drive around and waste more gas and that’s even more money,” said Raymond Jernigan, who lives in Virginia Beach. “It’s actually getting back to normal. A lot of people, I believe, are getting on board, once you figure out that you’re paying more in gas than you actually are in tolls.”

Anyone who drives these tunnels regularly can tell the difference. And Rice told WAVY.com it’s what they bargained for: a bit of backlash in the beginning, believing people would see the benefits over time.

She also said the benefits will keep adding up once the new tunnel is open in late 2016 and there’s additional capacity from that. It’s scheduled to open around same time as the MLK Extension, which she said will create a fully connected network with the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.

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