Editorial: Cheer transportation progress

·3 min read

As recently as a decade ago, construction of a new High-Rise Bridge would have been impossible. Virginia didn’t have the money or willpower to tackle that sort of project, despite the obvious need to improve traffic flow and the desire of residents to see it done.

Yet, last weekend, the first motorists traveled west on a gleaming new span of concrete and steel, 100 feet over the Elizabeth River. And driving in Hampton Roads — perpetually an exercise in frustration — got a little easier.

Thousands of people had a hand in seeing that project to completion, but the catalyst was the landmark 2013 state transportation bill, which continues to show what lawmakers can do when they work together on a shared long-term vision.

April 8, 2013, is one of the more consequential dates in Hampton Roads history, though it won’t appear on any marker or monument here. Rather, its importance is evident in a wider Interstate 64 from the tip of the Peninsula to Williamsburg, the new High-Rise Bridge in Chesapeake and, soon, additional lanes of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

That was the day Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed legislation that set forth a roadmap for the region to tackle long-needed road projects and put the wheels in motion to get them done. The bill was nearly derailed countless times, but lawmakers persisted, found common ground and, in doing so, altered the course of the commonwealth.

It was a bill born out of necessity: The traffic problems in high-population areas, such as Hampton Roads, demanded action and Virginia was set to run out of infrastructure money in 2017 without it.

There were additional costs on inaction. Old Dominion University’s 2016 State of the Region report noted the difficulty of quantifying the cost of Hampton Roads’ traffic problems, but concluded there was a substantial cost — both in lost time and wasted gasoline — to our congested roadways. The region also lost revenue as a matter of perception; visitors avoided the area because they believed getting around was more trouble than it was worth.

The 2013 transportation bill only survived the General Assembly because of compromise. It included higher taxes, which Republicans found unpalatable, and repurposing of state funds earmarked for other public programs such as education, which Democrats resisted.

In that crucible, lawmakers agreed to share the pain equitably. Each side made concessions. And the agreement asked more from those who would benefit most; Hampton Roads pays a higher sales tax to fund area transportation needs.

Subsequent legislation, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, sought to balance the needs of urban and rural communities, so each gets a share of transportation revenue; created regional boards to manage that money (here, it’s the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission or HRTAC); and established a priority system for evaluating projects, known as Smart SCALE.

That was a lot of heavy lifting in a short amount of time, with elected officials from both parties demonstrating sustained commitment and a willingness to work with one another to deliver tangible progress for the commonwealth.

That was how the $520 million widening of I-64 from Newport News to Williamsburg came to fruition. It’s how the $410 million High-Rise Bridge addition was built. And it’s how the HRBT will, in a few years’ time, open additional lanes to traffic.

There are still plenty of road issues residents would love to see addressed, most prominently the tunnel tolls that primarily harm Portsmouth and cost that city, by one 2018 estimate, about $9 million annually.

But while the region should continue to advocate to see those projects done, it should celebrate that driving to and from Williamsburg and Richmond is more efficient, travel across the High-Rise Bridge should be less time-consuming and, soon enough, getting from the Peninsula to south Hampton Roads (and vice versa) will be less prone to extensive backups.

It’s easy to forget how far from Virginia’s grasp these seemed only a decade ago, and a valuable reminder of what the commonwealth can accomplish through cooperation, compromise and commitment.