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.
Honorable Members of the House of Delegates:
I write as a resident of the City of Portsmouth and the Hampton Roads region to ask you to defeat H. B. 1253, which could be before your committee as soon as this Tuesday, February 4. Its companion bill, S. B. 513, which passed the Senate last week and is nearly identical in its provisions, should undergo the same fate. My principal objections to these measures, which would establish a new regional transportation authority in my part of the commonwealth are:
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.
(I endeavor to keep the focus of this site on Portsmouth issues, but I have been working against one very ill-considered provision of the comprehensive transportation funding bill, the hybrid registration surcharge. I know I’m not the only gas/electric fuel automobile owner in Portsmouth, so this issue must have some resonance for at least a few others.)
How about this innovative idea: Since the hybrid surcharge rationale is really based on what the Commonwealth needs to raise in revenue, not actual individual resource use, why not apply the same logic to other taxes. If we need more sales tax revenue, let’s slap an under-consumption fee on those slackers who aren’t buying enough consumer goods to satisfy state revenue needs. How about those low-wage, unemployed, permanently disabled, and retired folks scraping by on meager resources? They’re not contributing their fair share of income taxes, are they? Let’s hit them with an underachiever’s fee. This has so much potential, we should just expand it across the spectrum of fees, taxes, and tolls so we soak up every available dime of discretionary income from everybody. My one misgiving about suggesting this, though, is if a member of the General Assembly runs across it, s/he may not understand this is intended as irony and promote the idea. As we’ve seen on numerous occasions, in Virginia no notions are too crazy to find a patron in our state legislature. (State currency, anyone?)