By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter Emeritus
New Journal and Guide
William B. White has been commuting to his job at a medical facility from his home in Broadcreek for five years.
Each morning and later in the day, he and many other commuters returning home to Norfolk use the Downtown or Midtown tunnels and are automatically tolled.
Along with gas, car tax, and expenses, the toll takes a big bite out of his household budget.
Real Estate agent Portia A. Reeves lives in the Craddock section of Portsmouth, and for the past three years, there have been calls for her to use the tunnel to Norfolk to show homes.
She said she would go to and from Norfolk for four or more days. Despite using toll discounts, the mother of two said she, too, is seeing a large chunk of her income going to pay the tolls.
So when both heard that Portsmouth State Senator Louise Lucas would be seeking to negotiate a reduction or abolition of the tolls Virginia commuters pay to use the tunnels, they expressed full support.
Now that the 2024 General Assembly is underway. Lucas says she will lead the charge to secure toll relief for commuters using the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels.
A week before the legislature was gaveled into session on January 9, Lucas said during an interview with local media she would seek toll relief.
This, in exchange for the state funding to build a sports arena sought by Governor Glenn Youngkin in Alexandria, Virginia.
Lucas told WAVY’s 10 On Your Side in an exclusive interview: “No toll relief for Portsmouth tunnels, no arena in Northern Virginia – period.
“I said when I got re-elected, and I became chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee [that], it is time for Hampton Roads to get its fair share, and I want to start with those tolls, plain and simple.”
Last December, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced a new $2 billion public-private partnership to build an entertainment district in Alexandria at Potomac Yard.
According to a release from Youngkin’s office, the entertainment district will be developed by JBG Smith and cover 9 million square feet.
It will feature the global corporate headquarters for Monumental Sports and Entertainment. It will also feature an arena for the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards, a Monumental Sports Network media studio, the Wizards practice facility, a performing arts venue, and an expanded esports facility.
Lucas is Pro-tempore of the Senate and chairs its powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
She has an ally in Portsmouth State Delegate Don Scott, who is now the Speaker of the House, who has a strong hand in budget affairs and could help exert leverage to secure approval of her plans.
Along with other supportive members of both parties concerned about the tolls, she may have support from state Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller from Virginia Beach.
Democrats have only a 2-seat majority in the House and Senate and could not overturn any Veto by the Governor.
Scott told the GUIDE in previous issues that he is open to bipartisan legislative efforts on taxes and state budget and said, “Everything was on the table.”
Portsmouth Mayor Shannon Glover said he endorses Lucas’ proposal.
Glover cited a study by Old Dominion University shortly after the tolls were set in place, which said they negatively impacted low-income residents of the region and the city.
“Those tolls have caused city businesses to lose revenue from commuters from other parts of the region,” said Glover. “Low-income people have been hit hard despite the toll relief. If they are paying $1,000 in tolls, that could be used for car insurance, gas utilities, or other living costs.”
Glover said he and other council members will be lobbying for passage of some form of relief during the current session.
Glover and some other officials believe the state could bargain to restructure the debt with the Tunnel operators, Elizabeth River Crossing, using state bonds and allowing taxpayers to share the burden of reducing or settling it.
In late December, Elizabeth River Crossings announced increased toll rates for the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels effective January 1.