Editorial: Making transportation progress

·3 min read

The slow crawl through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel! Regular backups on Interstate 64 and I-264! Not knowing whether a trip from south Hampton Roads to the Peninsula will take a few minutes or a few hours!

Those aren’t the sort of things included in the tourism ads for Hampton Roads, but the region’s traffic woes are as much a feature of our landscape as our picturesque environment, delicious seafood and imposing military armaments.

So it would seem a celebration is in order, and certainly warranted, to mark the end of one critical transportation project and progress on another. Both promise to help ease congestion, improve mobility and help Hampton Roads focus on the region’s benefits (again, the seafood) rather than its notable liability.

Dare we wonder how many hours were lost in Newport News where I-64 winnowed down to four lanes from eight near Jefferson Avenue? The memory of it probably sets on edge the teeth of anyone who frequently traveled west from Hampton Roads toward Richmond.

One of the most congested points in the region — which is really saying something — that section of I-64 was the first target for improvement once Hampton Roads and the state reached agreement on a transportation funding bill in 2013.

That legislation may prove to be among the most consequential in modern Virginia history. It has few peers in the eyes of Hampton Roads.

The agreement dramatically changed how transportation projects are funded in Virginia, creating a process for evaluating need and a steady stream of revenue to follow through. It saw the region accept higher taxes to pay for high-priority work here in Hampton Roads.

Notably, it was advanced by a Republican governor (Bob McDonnell), a Republican House of Delegates and an evenly divided Senate. Which is to say, it required bipartisan cooperation to clear the General Assembly and become law. It’s a reminder that big things are possible.

Among those big things is the aforementioned I-64 expansion, which began shortly after the ink was dry on that transportation bill. The first shovel of dirt was turned in 2015, and the first segment, from Newport News to Fort Eustis Boulevard, was completed in 2017, on time and on budget.

Segments II and III followed, bringing an eight-lane I-64 from the Peninsula through York County to James City County. At a total cost of $520 million, it wouldn’t have happened without that critical legislation and the commitment of so many public officials, especially the members of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission which administers the transportation fund.

“This is literally a life-changing event for people in Hampton Roads, Newport News, Williamsburg and Richmond and our guests and our tourism park visitors who come here each and every week,” state Sen. Monty Mason, a Williamsburg Democrat, said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 20. “This is the gold standard.”

In a month that marked completion of that critical project, Hampton Roads had further transportation progress to celebrate. On Dec. 14, state and local officials gathered in Portsmouth to receive an honored guest named “Mary.”

“Mary” is a 9.8 million-pound tunnel boring machine that will dig through the soil at the bottom of the harbor as part of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project. The name, chosen by students at Saint Gregory the Great Catholic School in Virginia Beach, is a nod to Mary Winston Jackson, the NASA mathematician and Hampton native featured in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”

The four-lane tunnel, a constant source of frustration for area motorists, will gain additional lanes via two new tubes, once Mary sets to work. Construction is expected to conclude in 2025 at a total cost of $3.8 billion.

A smooth drive from Virginia Beach through the tunnel to the Peninsula? An HRBT without rush-hour backups every day? Will wonders never cease?

If Hampton Roads keeps making transportation progress, it might be tough to recognize the place soon. Good thing we’ll still have that seafood.

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