By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
A lawyer is preparing to file a suit in the coming days to stop the proposed plan calling for a return to tolls in Hampton Roads.
During a town hall meeting in Portsmouth Monday night (March 11), Attorney Patrick McSweeney told a packed crowd of about 600 locales that he will be filing a suit in the Portsmouth Circuit Court within days to block a plan that would assess tolls to pay for the construction of a new tunnel connecting Portsmouth and Norfolk. The plan, developed by Governor Bob McDonnell, VDOT and a group calling itself Hampton Roads Crossing, also calls for the tolls to help maintain the existing two tunnels.
McSweeney, who is based in Richmond, has the backing of a large segment of Hampton Roads residents, specifically in Portsmouth which will feel the greatest impact of the tolls.
The Governor, VDOT officials and the developers announced the plan last December.
If McSweeney’s suit does not stop it in its tracks, by the end of the year, drivers between Portsmouth and Norfolk may be paying as much as $1.84 during the peak commuting hours to go both ways in the tunnels. That is about $1,000 a year, according to McSweeney and supporters of his suit.
The development would cost some $2.1 billion dollars. Opponents to the plan said that the tolls would be raised in upcoming years.
“The Governor has signed the people of this region up for a plan which will cost them billions in the next 58 years,” said Norfolk Delegate Kenneth Alexander, who provided the venue for the town hall meeting, which had an overflow crowd.
“The developers will get a 13.5 percent return on the construction and 3.5 percent return on the billions of dollars in tolls.
People are going to pay these tolls to get to work, go to the doctor at Sentara, classes at NSU and ODU and for recreation. They are already hard-pressed by the downturn in the economy. Many have not had a pay raise in five years. Many don’t have a job.”
“Del. Alexander said the Governor and VDOT officials developed the plan without consent and input from the members of the State House and Senate. The decision, he said, was made by “the Governor and a developer who is going to profit off the backs of our people.”
Governor McDonnell said the plan is a good example of public-private partnership to pay for big ticket transportation projects to alleviate traffic jams and build transportation projects in Hampton Roads and other parts of Virginia.
But Alexander and other legislators who spoke at the town hall meeting said that instead of tolls, the state should raise the gas tax.
Further, opponents of the plan said tolls would be lifted, but the capacity of the two existing tunnels would not be expanded and the drag on movement through them during peak hours would not improve.
“A one cent hike on gas tax would raise over a billion dollars in one year,” said Alexander. “Plus while they will be collecting the toll money in Hampton Roads, the funds would be used in other parts of Virginia, where people will not be burdened by the tolls. This is not fair and we are looking for a more realistic alternative.”
One of the first politicians to speak out against the proposed plan was Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright, who has helped organize rallies such as the one held on March 3 near the Intelos Pavilion where speakers denounced the plan.
During Monday’s town hall meeting, the crowd was racially diverse with a mix of professional and blue color workers. If McSweeney’s suit is successful, it will force the Governor and the developers to go back to the drawing board.
During the 2012 legislative session, Alexander sponsored legislation which would have killed the transportation plan. But he said that lobbyists hired “by the administration killed my bill.”
McSweeney told the residents who attended the town hall meeting that the strength of his suit will rest on the argument that state legislators gave “unfettered power” to the Virginia Department of Transportation to work out details of the plan which will be funded by tolls.
Already a Political Action Committee (PAC) to tackle this issue has been created and at least $14,000 has been raised.