Special Report: Tolling the Future

Aerial view of the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel from the east end of the bridge.
Photo courtesy: Tom Saunders, VDOT
Aerial view of the Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel from the east end of the bridge. Photo courtesy: Tom Saunders, VDOT

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Transportation officials who will rely on tolling to pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvements in Hampton Roads want to reassure the public it will be better administered than at the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels.

Since it began imposing tolls in 2014, Elizabeth River Crossings has been the subject of consumer complaints and government criticism because of its billing and customer service practices.

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The deal struck between the Commonwealth and the company under Governor Bob McDonnell’s administration drew such ire, it became the impetus for new laws designed to protect taxpayers and customers.

“The general consensus is this was a very bad deal for the state and for the taxpayers, and it will take a long time to unravel,” said Dr. Robert McNab, an economics professor at Old Dominion University.

After a 10 On Your Side investigation revealed Elizabeth River Tunnels came under fire from transportation officials, CEO Greg Woodsmall said the company is working to redeem its reputation and fix its billing and customer service issues.

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Meanwhile, Virginia Department of Transportation officials and Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne are working to prove to a skeptical public that tolling can and will be better administered.

“Everybody has a few problems. We’ve never had this systematic issue in other parts of the state,” Layne said of ERT. “It reflects poorly on the state’s ability to offer tolling to the region.”

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That poses a problem for Layne and VDOT, who have already rolled out plans to convert I-64’s HOV system to tolled lanes by this time next year. Tolls may also be coming to the High Rise Bridge and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

“We’ll just have to prove to [drivers] that there is a professional and better way to do it,” Layne said.

Future tolling contracts and administrators will be influenced by laws passed in response to ERT’s performance and the burden inflicted upon Hampton Roads drivers, who no longer have a reasonable, free alternative to get between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

“Even though the courts did rule there was a free alternative, it’s not actually convenient. It’s a fixed toll, everybody has to pay, it’s not their choice,” Layne said. “So that’s hurt in general, and then when you put on there the performance of the concessionaire, no wonder the citizens here distrust the utilization of tolls.”

Virginia lawmakers passed House Bill 1069 earlier this year, beefing up consumer protection against tolling administrators. The Code of Virginia also now guarantees tolls can only be imposed on new roads that add capacity, or where there is a free alternative, a move that Layne said was also in direct response to the Elizabeth River Crossings contract.

Further, Layne promised government officials would do their due diligence and enforce pure competition in the bidding process to bring on third-party tolling operators.

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The economic impact of tolls in Hampton Roads is difficult to predict, because even data from existing tolls doesn’t exist yet, according to McNab.

“The secondary impacts are what I think people are really concerned about,” McNab said, citing decreased business traffic in Portsmouth and increased congestion on I-64 as examples.

“Those kinds of questions have yet to shake out. We know there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence around here that’s negative, but it’s something I think warrants further study.”

What is certain, according to McNab, is that low-income families who must use tolled routes will be the most dramatically impacted.

At the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels, Elizabeth River Crossings is legally allowed to increase the toll by more than three percent every year for decades to come.

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Although Governor McAuliffe’s administration worked with the company to offer toll relief to some drivers, McNab warns it likely won’t be enough to prevent negative consequences.

“We cannot just raise tolls across the board without thinking of how to shield the most vulnerable consumers from the impact of those tolls,” said McNab, who points to Washington, D.C. and New York City as examples of places that have successfully implemented broader toll relief programs.

Those cities also show, according to McNab, that a wider variety and network of public transportation options would also help ease the burden of tolls.

“If at the end of the day, we’re just increasing tolls everywhere without making wise investments in our infrastructure and infrastructure policy, then it could be detrimental in the long run.”

For customers experiencing problems with ERT’s customer service or billing, Layne said it’s important to inform both the company and VDOT: