Economist releases report on the impact of tolls

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A report released Friday shows the economic impact tolls have had on the city of Portsmouth over the last 15 months.

“It was a study that pretty much spelled out the obvious,” said Olde Towne Business Association President Tony Goodwin.

He was not surprised to hear traffic at the Midtown tunnel is down 5,700 vehicles every weekday and more than a 7,900 on the weekends. The Downtown Tunnel gets 6,300 fewer vehicles on weekdays and 17,000 on weekends.

“We have a situation that has changed people’s habits, and they are adjusting,” Goodwin said.

REPORT: The Impact of Tolls on the City of Portsmouth

And Portsmouth is adjusting more than any other city in Hampton Roads. According to the study, tolls and tunnel closures impact  Portsmouth 31 percent more than Suffolk , 459 percent more than Norfolk and 616 percent more than Virginia Beach.

The study’s author, James V. Koch, is an economist an professor at Old Dominion University. He said Portsmouth is losing $14 million in taxable sales because of the tolls, another $10 million due to tunnel closures.

Koch did specifically note that tolls have not been the only cause of declining tunnel traffic nor the only cause of stagnant sales tax revenues in the city. He cited other factors, including weather, the declining number of military and Department of Defense employees since 2004, port activity, and the time of the year.

Still, Portsmouth is getting the bad end of the stick.

“The benefits of the MTT/DTT/MLK Extension project will be felt throughout the region; Portsmouth, however, is bearing a disproportionate share of the costs,” Koch wrote, referring to the Midtown, Downtown and Martin Luther King extension projects.

Koch said businesses have been “driven to the edge” with foreseeable closures. He recommends more intelligent and better publicized closures. 10 On Your Side asked Elizabeth River Tunnels about that.

Spokesperson Leila Rice said the construction schedule was developed in collaboration with the cities, and is well publicized. Rice also sent pictures of work crews inside the tunnel to show why they sometimes have to close the whole thing during construction.

As for the tolls themselves, “We’re swimming up-stream, as the tunnel tolls continue to rise,” Goodwin told WAVY.com.

Goodwin thinks the answer is alternative transportation, like light rail coming through the tunnel. That would take years, possibly decades. Can Portsmouth businesses survive that long, with tolls going up every year?

“That’s going to be the question, that’s going to be the question,” Goodwin said.

Koch recommends buying down the bonds to keep tolls at their 2016 levels, or dedicating part of the regions sales tax revenue stream to the bonds. Both would require action by the General Assembly.

To find out where our leaders stand on that, 10 On Your Side reached out to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, senators Louise Lucas and Kenny Alexander, and Portsmouth’s mayor and city manager. We are still waiting to hear back from those leaders.

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