Tunnel Numbers Can’t Be Ignored — The Full Version

The Virginian-Pilot ran a greatly condensed version of the following “Letter to the Editor” in its Wednesday, March 5, 2014, edition. With permission of the author, the original is posted here.

First some background: I am a 55-year native of the area and have driven just about every road there is, and have commuted in many directions over the years, and have a good idea of where the majority of drivers are going and when. In addition, I have been been reporting news in various forms since 1973, and have provided weekday traffic reports since 2007. For the past three years I have been reporting traffic conditions between 5:00 AM and 3:00 pm weekdays for WHKT and WWIP. Therefor, I believe I am equipped with the knowledge and insight to provide some clarification on the traffic pattern change since the implementation of tolls at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels a month ago.

Even though the Elizabeth River Crossing and Virginia Department of Transportation spokespersons claimed there was about a 20-per cent reduction in traffic at the tunnels, it has become very plain to see that the actual reduction is at least 50-percent. Congestion and backups that once occurred at the tunnels does not happen now. Only a disabled vehicle, a crash, or a Berkley Bridge opening stopping traffic causes any kind of a backup; and those are short in duration. In addition, the ERC/VDOT officials claimed that drivers not using the tunnel shortly after the tolls were imposed would soon return. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case: there are fewer and fewer vehicles using the tunnels in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, over at the primary “avoid the tolls” routes, I-464, Military Highway and the Gilmerton Bridge, I-64 and the High Rise Bridge, and George Washington Highway and Canal Drive, there has been a very obvious increase in traffic volumes, especially commercial trucks. Prior to February First, there was very little traffic on I-64 Eastbound at the High Rise Bridge. In the past four weeks, that traffic has grown three-fold. There is also a daily late-morning backup on the ramps from I-264 to 64 Eastbound indicating a higher volume of traffic than before.

A good case in point: On Friday, February 4th, there was an injury crash that blocked the Eastbound lanes of I-264 at the Berkley Bridge during rush hour. Prior to the tolls, such a crash would have had I-264 East backed up to Portsmouth Boulevard with a small backup on I-464 Northbound. However, on Friday, there was only a minor backup at Effingham Street, while I-464 North was backed up to Freeman Avenue.

If your senses are valid, and you simply compare traffic conditions before February First with those of the past month, it is very easy to see that not only is the boycott of the tolls greater than predicted, but actually seems to be slowly growing. Given that the ERC/VDOT folks will try to always put as positive a spin on things as possible, with questionable traffic counts, I thought it might be best to get an expert – as well as more realistic and unbiased – opinion on the realities of the traffic pattern shift for the East-West commute across the Elizabeth River.

Kenneth M. Johnson

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