TIDEWATER VA :Anatomy of a Toll Fight

April 6, 1999

TIDEWATER VA :Anatomy of a Toll Fight

Originally published in issue 38 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Apr 1999.


Subjects:anti-toll toll vs tax

Facilities:Midtown tunnel I-264 58

Agencies:VDOT Tidewater

Locations:Hampton Roads Norfolk

This budding Virginia leader, and student of laws, clearly thinks the laws of supply and demand come not from economics but from political science or the study of government at play. He used this novel rendering of Alfred Marshall to argue that although there is no known funding for the controversial Midtown tunnel project on the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth at present, or even in 5 or 10 or 20 year financial plans, if the people of the area will just be patient and let the traffic congestion get bad enough, the state and federal government will, whatever they say now, one day suddenly come good with the money for the $650m project, and it will get built sans-tolls.

This is what in Papua New Guinea anthropologists in the 1950s called the “cargo cult” of the highlands natives just recently opened to the outside world, according to which if your situation got sufficiently dire, whether starvation, disease or whatever you were suffering, stone-age wisdom dictates that you just have to be patient, and perhaps even let things get a little worse, because the cargo of food and medicines will eventually arrive in planes from the south, especially if you send more ministrations via the missionaries, or the media, to the distant white gods from which all such aerial beneficence derives.

French philosophe Frederick Bastiat put it pithily: “Government is that fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

I watched a video of the proceedings of two key meetings on the tunnel toll of the city councils of Portsmouth and Norfolk mid-April. The cliché of the hour was the need to “think outside the box.” Almost every politician who spoke was in favor of escaping from this bad ‘box’ according to which, it was implied, the choice is a nasty choice of (1) a new tax, or (2) a new toll for a new tunnel, or (3) no new tunnel. Thinking bravely, imaginatively outside this ‘box’ is Y2K Age escapist babble for avoiding a tough choice and trekking off for handouts to Richmond and to Washington DC – places we were repeatedly informed are “awash with surpluses” in another of the evenings’ neat turns of phrase.

The contemporary politician’s special skill seems to be (1) to cultivate indignation about a proposal that people pay their way (2) make people feel it far-sighted, visionary and otherwise noble for them to be representing the ‘community’ to (3) perform the ‘leadership’ and ‘public service’ of going begging. Getting someone else to pay for what you want, and feeling righteous about having them pay – that is the essence of such ‘public service’ and ‘leadership.’

The meetings in Portsmouth and Norfolk were told, again and again, that the tunnel would be for the benefit of the whole region and the whole state, and that the tolls would be quite unfair because they would fall almost entirely on local residents...

Wait now! If local residents would be paying almost all the toll wouldn’t that indicate that they would have to be doing almost all the travel through the tunnel, since tolls would be collected from everyone going through the tunnel? In which case just how would the rest of the region and the state be benefiting?

Or if in a contrary case, people from afar were using the tunnel – through traffic – wouldn’t they be paying the tolls? A toll is paid in proportion to the use of the toll facility, eh?

Let’s deal in some data: a study last fall showed the traffic split approx 30% Portsmouth residents, 20% Norfolk, 30% others in the Tidewater/Hampton Roads metro area and people from outside about another 20%. So it’s much like most major big city crossings: about half the patronage is the immediate area, 4/5ths regional and 1/5 outsiders.

Not a single person was present at either city council meeting to put the case for the tunnel toll scheme, someone who might have pointed out that there is no need for such cerebral and agonizing examination of regional equities, that a toll is very simple in that it doesn’t care where you come from, or who you are, how worthy you or your trip is, or what theory of equity you might have. It just says with its posting of the toll rate: “Here’s a tunnel. And a toll rate. If the value to you of using this tunnel is equal to, or more than our toll, please enjoy our tunnel. If not, feel free to find another way.”

Now we are dealing here with motorists as sentient human persons who know the toll rate beforehand, or who will observe the posted toll rate, think of trade-offs, and make choices about where they travel. They will think of how much time the tunnel will save and its convenience versus the toll rate. Some will find another way, a longer way around, or use the telephone instead of traveling, or they will rearrange their business, personal or commercial, so as to avoid the need for the tunnel. Or else they will use the tunnel and pay the toll. In every passage through the toll tunnel every patron will be saying by the very fact of their passage, that the trip is worth more than the toll. Every trip will signify that they gain a net benefit. End of argument. Toll justified.

Of course there are other arguments. Half of the establishments in the Portsmouth area pay no local taxes, being federal govt property – US naval and air bases. Without the traffic generated by those US govt places, it was said at Portsmouth council, there wouldn’t be any need for the extra tunnel. Overlooked by one or two brave souls who advocated a higher regional tax was that it too would fail to fall on the feds, though their customers, and suppliers as well as their staff would pay any tolls. They may be tax-exempt under long established intergovernmental tax arrangements in the US, but they have never been toll-exempt. So collecting tolls from them is likely to be whole lot easier than collecting taxes from them. Another argument for tolls, not taxes. But noone made that argument.

To be sure there were some Portsmouth, and more Norfolk councilors with doubts about the begging expedition, not of course that there was anything wrong with it, just that it was unlikely to produce more than pennies compared to the dollars needed. The Norfolk mayor Paul Fraim just said he wanted to let everyone go looking for the money in Richmond and DC. It was no use Norfolk being confrontational by voting differently from Portsmouth at this point. Everyone in the region should “go down the same path.”

So the toll issue having been voted down in Portsmouth in Norfolk it was “tabled” (or in the English rendering “shelved.”) Councilor Ward Robinett joined all the others in Portsmouth voting against the tolls, but he at least said that voting down tolls was “easy.” But since everyone agreed the tunnel was needed noone should declare victory, he said, until those alternative funds out there somewhere were actually identified and obtained. He called the tax system that sent so much local money to Washington DC and Richmond “archaic” but held out little hope for the early repeal of the US income tax and gasoline tax, or even that imposed by the state of Virginia, and said he feared that after all the explorations in search of other money, they’d eventually be back looking at tolls again. But tolls, he seemed to agree, were a last resort.

The media reported it all, the VIRGINIAN PILOT newspaper, the major daily in the area, doing some probing Q&A interviews with major actors, and a lot of straight reports, several times attempting not to let a bunch of slippery pols off answering hard questions. Competent professional stuff. The sponsors of the toll scheme were quoted saying a bit feebly that there weren’t state funds for the project, but that isn’t really their area of expertise or authority. That should be coming from a government treasury type. All of whom were keeping their heads down, apparently. Not talking.

TV? It naturally placed its reporters out at the existing tunnels and with the backdrop of heavy traffic, they talked of the toll politics, some a bit breathlessly as if tolls were killed with just one city council vote, others presenting it more reasonably as just one early play in a long game.

Pandering - Low Fox on Tawdry Ten

The most stupid, if not mendacious piece of journalism was a shock-horror report by the local Channel 10 TV reporter Andy Fox. The vote against tolls was, he said, “Certainly good news for all the 90,000 approximate cars (who use the existing downtown tunnel each day). You can see them backing up...” He had his cameraman lift up over his arm to show dense traffic creeping up the ramp from the tunnel portal and he said: “Imagine if there were a toll right here. It would be backing the traffic up even more.” To make sure he had made his editorializing point against tolls he repeated it a moment later saying the “public private partnership wants to pay for it (the new tunnel) with tolls. They want to put the tolls where all the cars are, here.” Again showing thick traffic. The ordinary viewer would no doubt think of an old cramped toll plaza with manual toll collection and long delays.

This Andy Fox just possibly was so ignorant of local affairs that he hadn’t heard of non-stop electronic tolling as proposed by the investors for these Elizabeth River tunnels. And was ignorant of the fact that it is in operation under the logo Smart Tag just 25 miles north of where he was standing – on the VDOT Coleman Bridge over the York River. There some 20k cars a day sail through the toll plaza most of them without stopping, thanks to electronic tolling. No significant backups at all with tolls! By contrast, before tolls and the doubling of the bridge that tolls financed, there were routinely 15 to 30 minute backups.

So in Fox’s own region just half an hour’s drive away from the Elizabeth River, tolling-supported doubling of capacity has done the exact opposite of what this thickhead was reporting. Tolls, and the construction they have financed, have ended congestion, not created more not of it. Didn’t he know this? Of course, he had to.

More likely reporter Fox, and his lousy editors simply didn’t care about such facts, and were not interested in properly informing viewers about the real choices. They probably just thought of this sleezy misrepresentation as a catchy shock-horror line to imply that these bloodsucking business monsters who propose tolls, they say they’ll reduce congestion, but you smart guys watching out there, you know they’ll really make it all worse with a toll plaza. And they’ll rip you off while they are at it.

Such disgraceful populist journalism plays to the demagogues among the politicians, and the snake-oil merchants who’ll slip around making tough governmental decisions and play on popular delusions that there’s a free lunch out there which only their persistent ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ can produce.

Politicking and PR

It’s a perpetual problem of private sector toll projects: When do they make the public political pitch? In the Seattle WA area in 1995 a whole heap of toll projects went down the tube in large part because the investor groups making the toll proposals simply didn’t argue for them against critics. The government too sat on its hands. Each blamed the other for the political fiasco after the antis had the field to themselves.

Dwight Farmer director of transp at the Hampton Roads District Planning Commission the local MPO is a strong proponent of pricing. He says that without tolls there is no way major needed projects will get built, and he sees the virtue in variable toll rates to manage demand. But, he says, the investor group HRPPD has not done much to “sell” their Midtown Tunnel project to the publics of Norfolk and Portsmouth. In the current political mood, he says, no new toll will fly without a major effort. HRPPD has confined its advocacy to a series of small meetings of invited people. It has done no public advocacy.

David Bottorff of Tidewater Construction, the principal in HRPPD says “We are builders not politicians” to the statement that the group hasn’t been putting the case for tolls. In addition the group doesn’t yet have a concession agreement with the state. Late last year it expected to be in the middle of negotiating an agreement by now, but instead the whole project is in doubt because of the vote against tolls in Portsmouth. Bottorff says they were caught by surprise by a Virginia DOT request that they get support from each of the adjacent city councils before it would negotiate the agreement. They had understood that the public outreach effort would come after the agreement was signed.

He says he is still hopeful that after a period of 3 or 4 months investigation the officials of Portsmouth and Norfolk will discover there is no great pot of gold they can find in Richmond or Washington DC, and that they still need the toll-based investor funding.

Jim Atwell commissioner for finance at VDOT and the officer in charge of concessions says the department decided it was wise to get an affirmative vote from the two councils involved before the negotiations rather than go to the trouble and expense of the final concession document and then have the project go nowhere because of local opposition. But without their concession HRPPD was not prepared to go to the expense of systematically ‘selling’ the project to the public. So the advocacy hasn’t been done. Neither HRPPD, nor VDOT nor the local MPO put its views on the project to the Portsmouth Council.

After the Tin Can Trips

One local political observer says the most likely scenario now is that the Tidewater politicians will get something out of the Governor – the guess is perhaps $30m or $50m – but that there is “no way” they’ll get state commitments to fund the whole project. So while any state contribution will be helpful in reducing the needed tolls, the choice will still come back to toll tunnel or no tunnel. We’ll see. (Contact David Bottorff, Tidewater Constructors 757 420 4140 www.midtowntunnelnow.com)

HISTORY: Two groups Hampton Roads Infrastructure Development (basically ICF Kaiser) and East Virginia Public-PrivateFacilities submitted proposals to the state of VA for the Norfolk-Portsmouth Midtown Tunnel and associated highway connections in 1996. After an extended period of discussion the teams merged and the current proposal was submitted by newly formed Hampton Roads Public Private Development LLC (HRPPD). ICF Kaiser was having severe financial problems and CEO firings and withdrew, its place as principal being taken by Tidewater Construction. Tidewater is a long-established Virginia builder, now a sub of Skanska of Europe. Also partners in HRPPD are Morrison Knudsen and Interbeton

Currently access to downtown Norfolk and its immediate northern suburbs and ports from the west under the navigation channel Elizabeth River consists of three 2-lane tunnel tubes - the 2x2-lane Downtown Tunnel (I-264) carrying 100k veh/day, and a 2x1 lane Midtown Tunnel (US-58) carrying 35k veh/day. There is strong support for adding a fourth tube – a 1420m (4650') immersed tube tunnel – to make:

(1) the Midtown Tunnel 2x2-lanes. This is an approx $300m job, according to HRPPD. The western or Portsmouth side of the tunnel is presently connected to the Martin Luther King Freeway (US-58) which angles due south but stops about a mile short of I-264, a major feeder.

(2) Construction of this Martin Luther King Fwy Extension to I-264 plus a fwy-fwy interchange – $120m.

(3) Pinners Point Connector/Interchange, a connector 2km long and T-interchange to tie the Western Fwy (VA-164) into the expanded tunnel and MLK Fwy (US-58) – $150m

An interchange (4) on the eastern portal of the tunnel at Brambleton Avenue would be rebuilt to accomodate the extra lanes and various ITS systems installed. The investors propose to toll both tunnels plus the Western Norfolk bridge (VA-164) to gain the revenue needed to support a total $600m project.

Problems include overloading of surface arterials on the eastern side of the Midtown tunnel and how the projects fits with a proposed third Hampton Roads Crossing further north linking I-664 and I-564. As well as the matter of tolls, above.

Further Reading

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