The Good Toll Bridge

Over the past few months, a number of stories in the local media have shone a spotlight on the Elizabeth River Crossings project and the contract with the commonwealth that many of us consider an outrage. Along with a growing number of other concerned citizens, I have contributed both effort and money to seeing that deal undone. I want to be clear, though, that tolls in and of themselves are not the issue for me. Rather, it is a matter of the opaque process that brought the ERC deal into being without giving the citizenry an opportunity to approve or reject the final provisions.

Unlike the convoluted public-private partnership legal agreement underpinning the Midtown-Downtown-Martin Luther King Freeway Extension project, the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge endeavor was a rather straightforward private undertaking. The FIGG company, using private money, demolished the derelict Jordan Bridge that had become inoperable and built a new structure across the Elizabeth River between Chesapeake and Portsmouth. Accommodating not only motor vehicles but also bicycle and pedestrian traffic, the dazzlingly beautiful South Norfolk Jordan Bridge reconnected the community of South Norfolk to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and the Cradock community in a minimal amount of time and without the massive cost overruns that are the bane of many transportation projects.

For motorists, crossing the SNJB comes at a price. After all, the people financing the bridge construction are not doing so as a philanthropic gesture nor receiving large government subsidies for their efforts. Even so, the $2-$3-$4 initial rate for passenger vehicles, depending on mode of payment, was not unreasonable based on current prices for labor, materials, and associated costs. Yet, when the Gilmerton Bridge closed for a time last winter to accommodate its renovation, in the spirit of neighborliness, the SNJB operators reduced their charges temporarily instead of exploiting those displaced from their normal route by increasing the toll rate.

From April 1 until June 18, I made the SNJB a regular part of my commute. Traveling from the Churchland section of Portsmouth to the Lynnhaven area of Virginia Beach and back each workday, I crossed that bridge 84 times. I typically used it during prime morning and evening drive times but encountered a back up only on one midweek afternoon and only for about ten minutes. As an E-ZPass holder, I paid the lowest rate of $1 (now risen to a $1.50). In terms of time and wear-and-tear on my nerves saved, I think I got a great deal. I detest sitting in traffic as much as anyone, and I resent the people who think they are too important to take their turn waiting in line. All in all, I think the SNJB is a great asset to the region, and I plan to continue to use it regularly.

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