PORTSMOUTH -- The fight against tolls at the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels hits a milestone Wednesday.
More than a year after Citizens Against Unfair Tolls filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the tolls, the case is being heard in Portsmouth Circuit Court.
Drivers would have to pay fees to use the tunnels as well as a stretch of highway on the Portsmouth side of the Elizabeth River beginning in January. The tolls are included as part of a contract VDOT signed with Elizabeth River Crossings which is overseeing transportation projects at the Downtown and the Midtown.
"This is all about money. This is about the flow of cash, not about the flow of traffic. This is about people being used as a revenue stream," Terry Danaher told 13News.
Danaher is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit which, in part, alleges the public-private deal VDOT and ERC reached violates the Virginia State Constitution. Attorneys for Citizens Against Unfair Tolls argue the tolls are taxes and that only the State Legislature has the authority to tax. It also cannot transfer that authority to another body.
"We have a very good chance," said Danaher, "for a good decision from a good judge who has probably read more than he ever wanted to on what is happening."
"If we do not prevail with this lawsuit, we will be strapped with tolls, with economic devastation that the tolls will wrought on our cities in this locality for 58 years," stated Nettie Fischer who also is part of the legal effort to fight the fees.
Toll rates for cars with E-ZPass transponders that use using the Downtown Tunnel or Midtown Tunnel would begin at $1.59 (off-peak) and $1.84 (peak). Cars that use the MLK Extension and one of the tunnels as part of a single trip would pay $0.50 to use the MLK extension. Cars that use only the MLK Extension would pay $1.00.
If a driver does not have E-ZPass, an invoice would be mailed to them. Invoiced customers are charged for cost recovery, which by Virginia law is capped at two times base toll rate.
"It costs 10 dollars, slightly over 10 dollars, in fact, to go through the tunnel and back for anybody who doesn't have an E-ZPass. That's just an insane, outrageous amount, and it only gets worse, and worse, and worse as the years go on," said Danaher, referring to increases set to take place during the time period covered by the contract. "We're looking at a huge economic impact, and that really needs to be understood by everybody."