Portsmouth tunnel toll has little support

9/11/2013, 2:54 p.m.

The Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Virginia Department of Transportation's appeal of a decision by the Circuit Court for the city of Portsmouth that held the setting of tolls on the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel/MLK Extension project was unconstitutional.

In its ruling, the circuit court held that the tolls function as a tax and that (1) VDOT lacks the authority to levy taxes and (2) the General Assembly had impermissibly authorized VDOT to agree to the toll rates in its contract with its private partner.

Statement from Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the attorney general's office, on today's hearing:

"The commonwealth has argued that the revenues raised through the tunnel tolls are user fees to be used solely for a single transportation project," said Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the Virginia attorney general's office. "As such, we believe the tolls cannot be considered a tax and that it is completely within VDOT's authority to set reasonable tolls to pay for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the project.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court granted an expedited appeal of the circuit court's decision, which called into question the commonwealth's ability to deliver critical infrastructure improvements by using public-private partnerships. We expect the court to issue a decision before the end of the year."

Meanwhile, fewer than one-quarter of Hampton Roads residents support the McDonnell administration’s deal with a private company to reimpose tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, according to a new poll.

Only 23.4 percent of those surveyed expressed support for the tunnel deal. Nearly half of the respondents, 47.4 percent, agreed that the two Elizabeth River crossings need to be expanded but said the work should be paid for in some other way, and 19.7 percent opposed the project altogether.

The findings are from the fourth annual “Life in Hampton Roads” survey conducted by the Social Science Research Center at Old Dominion University.