Editorial: Tunnel tolls are a bad deal for Portsmouth

Folks who live or work in Portsmouth celebrated the start of the new year like the rest of Hampton Roads. But the morning of Jan. 1 offered a reminder that they are treated like second-class citizens of this region.

Tolling at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels increased yet again, meaning that those who live in the city and work elsewhere, or those who travel from Norfolk and other cities to work in Portsmouth, will be asked to pay more to do so.

While the toll relief program has helped, and it was made available to more motorists in October, it is a poor substitute for paying down the estimated $2 billion cost remaining on the tolling contract and removing this escalating burden on Portsmouth as quickly as possible.

The expansion and improvement of the Midtown and Downtown tunnels were a top Hampton Roads transportation priority for years before Gov. Bob McDonnell in December 2011 announced a deal between a private construction company and the Virginia Department of Transportation to see it done.

The agreement to proceed on the $2.1 billion project was unique. It allowed VDOT to retain possession of the tunnels and oversee the work, but gave Elizabeth River Crossings, a consortium of Skanksa Infrastructure Development and the Macquarie Group, responsibility to finance, build and maintain the facilities.

It also gave ERC tolling rights to the tunnels for 58 years. That VDOT, in that agreement, paid $362 million to hold down toll costs was an early indication that the deal might not be great for those using the new and improved tunnels.

Those concerns were given voice at the time by Portsmouth officials, who worried about how low-income daily commuters would pay the tolls and feared the potential harm they would inflict on the city’s economic development efforts.

“You’re going to create an island here in Portsmouth,” then-Mayor Kenny Wright told a Virginian-Pilot columnist in 2011. His comments were prescient.

Subsequent studies on the effects of the tolls concluded that Portsmouth loses millions in annual revenue as a direct result. People are content to find other routes when they can; for those who cannot, however, the cost is substantial.

Virginian-Pilot reporting in 2017 found some commuters facing five-figure bills from ERC because they didn’t have E-ZPass transponders, which meant they were paying higher rates to cross the river. A failure to pay one overdue bill led to the debt snowballing. One woman owed $15,000 for a job that paid $11,000 annually.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe pressured ERC to settle those enormous bills, improve its operations and contribute to the toll relief fund, which helps offset costs for Portsmouth residents making $30,000 or less. In October, that program’s threshold was raised to $50,000 and opened to residents from other cities.

Those changes have helped, but the tolls will continue to constrain Portsmouth so long as they are in place. While it’s true the city has a lot of problems it must address, it is hardly helped by being separated from its neighbors. And it seems especially cruel that a city with one of the highest poverty rates in Virginia would be asked to bear this heavy burden.

In 2021, Portsmouth Mayor Shannon Glover floated the idea of using state or federal funds to pay down the balance of the ERC contract. At the time Virginia boasted a $2 billion budget surplus and expected a $4 billion windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act, but hopes for applying some of that money to the contract fizzled out.

That idea still has merit. Virginia may not be able to write a $2 billion check to terminate this contract, but it must explore all avenues that can reduce this onerous burden on Portsmouth. Residents there could use a break — any break — and addressing the tunnel tolls would be one way to provide it.