The tolls that divide us

Will coming toll increases drive down the local economy?

These signs will be replaced Dec. 28 and 29.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — On January 1, tolls will go up by 25 cents at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. That represents a 33 percent increase during peak traffic hours and a 25 percent increase during non-peak traffic.

Tolls began at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels on Feb. 1 this year. The coming increase is part of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s agreement to pay down the tolls during construction. Once construction is complete, there could be annual increases until 2070.

A local economist believes the tolls and the increases threaten the viability of Hampton Roads.

“I think it will create a place that is much less desirable to live, is the way I would describe it,” ODU Professor of Economics Dr. Gary Wagner said.

Special Coverage: WAVY.com Tunnel Tolls Coverage

Dr. Wagner describes a community that would be less desirable, fractured and less competitive.

“We could have a Southside separated from west Hampton Roads, separated from where Suffolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake are,” he said. “It would be a lot more isolated, and I do not think that would be a good thing for our future.”

Wagner co-authored “The State of the Region, Hampton Roads 2014.” He wrote it with James Koch, who is on the Board of Visitors of Economics and ODU President Emeritus.

Dr. Wagner said Hampton Roads is an interdependent region, as 60 percent of the workforce lives in a different city than where they work.

The Elizabeth River Crossings/Virginia Department of Transportation contract calls for yearly toll increases of 3.5 percent or the rate of the Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater. That means drivers could pay as much as $21 by 2070.

“It absolutely will damage our community, and it will make us much less competitive, relative to other metropolitan areas in the Commonwealth and the eastern seaboard,” Wagner said.

Document: ODU State of the Region examines “Burden of Tolls”

Dr. Wagner believes many of us have changed our habits when the tolls cost us $1,000 a year. Residents and business owners in Portsmouth and Norfolk have a front-row seat to that happening.

“We rarely go to Norfolk or Virginia Beach anymore,” Portsmouth resident and vocal toll opponent Terry Danaher said. “We don’t go to the beach for fun anymore; we used to shop regularly in Norfolk and go to restaurants, we don’t do that anymore.”

Danaher runs the Portsmouth Olde Towne Farmer’s Market, and it’s not the same. “We have seen a terrific drop off in traffic once they started closing the Downtown eastbound tunnel for construction work, and they couldn’t get out. Once they got here that has hurt a lot, the construction closings.”

“I’m struggling,” said Charles Greenhood, who owns and operates Brutti’s Restaurant in Olde Towne Portsmouth.

Nine months of tolls have slashed business at Bruitti’s by 50 percent.

“You can’t blame it all on tolls,” he said. “You have to look at the economy, and look where folks have decided not to go and where not to spend money for lunch. But tolls exasperate the situation.”

Stefanie Brown owns the nearby Bier Garden Restaurant and said not everyone is negatively impacted by tolls.

“I don’t think it impacted us as much as I thought it would,” she said. “We all panicked.”

Brown hates tolls, but said business is good. Her records show 25 to 35 percent of her business comes from Norfolk, and they pay the tolls without any coupons to lure them back.

“I had a coupon at Harris Teeter in downtown Norfolk, and it was a $1.50 coupon to help pay for the toll. I didn’t get one coupon back,” she said.

10 On Your Side asked VDOT and ERC to share the Tunnel Traffic Volume numbers, since tolls began in February. The numbers show in February 2014, traffic was down an average of 20 percent from the previous February. October 2014 traffic was down 12 percent from October 2013. ERC said traffic is slowly coming back to the tunnels.

Document: Elizabeth River Crossings traffic numbers before and after tolling

“I have not seen it come back,” countered longtime traffic reporter Kenneth Johnson, who began reporting traffic for local radio stations in 1986.

Johnson is not buying what the VDOT-ERC numbers show. He said he can tell: daily tunnel traffic backups are now almost non-existent.

“We always saw the backup eastbound on I-264 going into the Downtown Tunnel, it would be backed up to Frederick Blvd by 7 a.m. The westbound side would be backed up to Brambleton by 6:45 a.m., and it would stay that way for a while,” Johnson said. “Now you hardly see any backups or delays.”

The final reality check comes from Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, who said if you’re looking for any more state buy down of tolls, stop looking.

“I don’t believe it’s a good use of state resources to buy down the tolls any further than we have,” Layne told WAVY.com.

He also confirmed what will likely be a trend: housing developments west of the tunnels so people won’t have to cross the tunnels.

“I think there is some potential for the western part of Hampton Roads in development because of people’s desires not to go through those tunnels,” Layne said.

Additional Resources:

HRTPO preliminary impacts of tolling on traffic volumes

ERT July 2014 project update 

Elizabeth River Tunnel Project page

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