TIDEWATER VA:Norfolk tunnels & I-64 HOT get Fed OK
By Peter Samuel
On May 21, in the closing days of the ISTEA regime Madelaine Bloom, director of the Office of Policy at the Fed Hwy Admin wrote the Virginia Commissioner of Transp David Gehr granting a US government OK to impose tolls on the I-264 Downtown Tunnel in Norfolk as part of an investor project to help finance $500m or so of new highway facilities in the heart of the port and naval base city. And in an intriguing little three-way powerplay the Feds also said the toll-the-interstate permit for the Tidewater region would also include an I-64 HOT lanes project.
But Gehr who runs VDOT has never asked for a federal permit to do HOT lanes on I-64! He had asked for the Norfolk Tunnels permit on I-264 only. Behind the feds extraordinary Well-you-didnt-ask-but-you-have-our-blessing message to VDOT on I-64 is an amazing case of footdragging by the conservative chiefs in the capital Richmond, and rivalry with the dynamic and larger (1.4m pop) coastal Hampton Roads port region around the city of Norfolk at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPCD) has been wanting since mid-1997 to initiate toll buy-in to the $120m 2-lane reversible barried HOV facility on I-64 that extends 11km (7mi) from the Norfolk Naval Base spur road (I-564) southward to an interchange with VA-44 the Norfolk-Virginia Beach Expressway. The 2 in a 3/2/3-lane hwy opened in 1992 and is currently running way under capacity despite huge efforts by the local authorities to make the carpooling work. At its peak in 1995 the facility was running 475 veh/lane/hr in the a.m. rushhours, about 35 to 40% of the volume that would still allow free flow conditions. Thats down a third in two years now to 320 veh/hr/lane now. Thats at least 75% empty!
According to the HRPCD transp chief Dwight Farmer: Weve got a seriously empty and underutilized facility. And the situation is slipping further, not getting better.
Farmer is a strong believer in pricing, who says that, given the several expensive new deep water crossings that the area has to build to support its economic development, the need for pricing is compelling, both to raise money for the major capital expenditures and to move some traffic out of the peaks and make fuller use of crossings and associated highways. He says it pains him every time he thinks about it to see the waste of such an empty HOV facility as I-64 when alongside traffic is in stop-&-go state. He has proposed a staged approach starting first selling a simple hang tag to solo drivers allowing them to use the HOV facility, then possibly moving to a full HOT lane with per trip tolling by transponder.
US Navy sinks Norfolk HOV
The worst embarrassment is that now the HOV facility is carrying far fewer people per lane/hr than the unrestricted lanes 706 vs 1232 by the latest a.m. count. HOV lanes are usually celebrated because they carry more people, but here they are carrying 40% fewer. The p.m. shows 395 veh/lane/hr in the HOV vs 1118 in the mixed lanes and the HOV carrying 884 compared to 1343 persons/lane/hr. Part of the problem is that overall traffic has dropped on I-64,
especially in the peaks. This is the largest US naval base, homeport for a bunch of large aircraft carriers and a horde of other warships, and headquarters of the Atlantic fleet. The end of the cold war has seen major cuts in ships, activity and manpower. Overall employment in the region is buoyant and new civilian jobs have more than replaced lost navy jobs. Problem for the HOV however is that the new civilian jobs are spread around the region and civilian work shifts are more varied. They just dont translate into car or van-pooling.
Over half violators
On another HOV (concurrent flow buffered) VA-44 total traffic is down but much less than on I-64. But the latest traffic data show a serious slide in HOV too over two years. Persons carried are down a third. Thats despite a rise in the violation rate (SOVs in the HOV lane) to 654/1278 by the latest a.m. count. The violators were 51% of total vehicles!!! The evening was even worse 943/1,662=57% violators. This seems like a near complete collapse in enforcement.
Local officials would essentially seem to have given up on HOV here.
They see some toll buy-in as a way of regularizing use of these lanes but VDOT in Richmond is apparently frightened of the idea.
The Fed Hwys letter to VDOT says: We are aware that the Hampton Roads MPO in October 1997 endorsed submitting a proposal which would include High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on I-64s reversible High Occupancy Vehicle lanes... HOT lanes on I-64 may be included... Thus the Feds have formally invited VDOT to cooperate with local officials like Farmer in getting federal support for toll buy-in on I-64. (See TRnl#17 Jul 97 p1, Contact Dwight Farmer HRPDC 757 420 8300)
On the tunnels however VDOT is moving forward on V-pricing. In Feb it took the initiative and proposed tunnel expansion and connections for inclusion in the Feds congestion pricing program. This involves a second Midtown Tunnel (US-58) tube ($257m), Pinners Point interchange ($143m) and Martin Luther King Fwy (US-58) Extension ($101m) that provide high quality connections to the tunnel and to a major new port area. The Midtown tunnel is only 3.5km (2mi) from the Downtown tunnel (2 tubes of 2-lanes) which is part of I-264. The investors led by ICF Kaiser propose to finance the extra tube for the Midtown tunnel and some of the major approach improvements by putting tolls on both sets of tunnels. And they want to do variable tolls because VDOT made its application for the third slot in the ISTEA congestion pricing program left by the collapse of plans for pricing on I-394 in Minnesota. Noone there wants to talk further to us. They dont yet have an agreement with the state. But they got the permit they sought in the Madelaine Bloom letter of May 21, so one further obstacle has been removed to another V-price project. (Contact John Zimmer ICF Kaiser 703 934 3000)
ICF Kaiser problems: there are reports of major problems at ICF Kaiser including huge cost over-runs on some of its non-road projects. A major management shakeup seems likely.