Toll mania in Hampton Roads?
Virginia's skin-flint nature has always called for tolls on roads. Now proposals to solve Hampton Roads' special transportation problems could mean more tolls than residents ever imagined possible.
Virginia's road and bridge needs total some $100 billion, and the state has very limited funds. Since the state's conservative leaders also hate taxes, they are always pushing to find ways to have highways without state taxpayers bearing much of the cost -- namely toll roads and bridges and privatized construction projects.
One example is the Dulles Greenway, which extends the Dulles Toll Road from the airport 14 miles to Leesburg. This private parkway assesses users up to $5.25, depending on the time of day, and is supposed to help alleviate congestion for commuters in Loudoun County and points west.
In Hampton Roads, the problems are multiplied by water. The Tidewater area is awash in bays, inlets, rivers and creeks, and some waterways need to be kept open to the passage of larger commercial vessels and important Navy ships such as aircraft carriers. Some of the key structures, such as the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel connecting Norfolk with Hampton, are 50-plus years old and have long been outdated.
Since there's precious little money to solve Tidewater's troubles, the city of Norfolk staff came up with a special map. Wags derisively call it "the Ring of Fire."
It shows what tolls could be like if little or no public money were available to build new infrastructure and the private option was the only way to go. Going anywhere would involve a substantial toll. The relatively short Midtown Tunnel would cost $2.17 each way. An expanded Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, now free, would cost from $4 to $6. Using a new superhighway connecting Suffolk and Interstate 95 in Petersburg could set you back $11.
Regional leaders such as Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim are worried what the toll-mania will mean for the area's economy. "Has anybody thought through all this?" he has asked.
The key is that most of the cost of obtaining needed infrastructure would be dumped almost entirely on local residents. That way, the big cheeses in Richmond can tell voters that, no, they didn't raise taxes. "Pay as you go," has been a political mantra dating back to the one-party Byrd Organization of 70 years ago.
The problem is that tolls are just another way of taxing people. Virginia does have other options, including hiking its very low state gasoline tax. But that would mean state-wide grumbling. Better to dump Hampton Roads's unique problems on the sorry 2 million or so souls who live there.
| December 8, 2010; 9:49 AM ET
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