RICHMOND-The Virginia Supreme Court says tolls can be imposed on thousands of drivers who use the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.
Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright said he's frustrated by the ruling and he calls the decision "bad news for everyone."
The decision handed down Thursday reverses a ruling by Portsmouth Circuit Judge James Cales Jr., who agreed with concerned residents that the Virginia Department of Transportation and Elizabeth River Crossings didn't have the authority to impose the tolls because they're taxes.
“What they’re essentially saying is they understand that the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA, 1995) has limits to it, but they don’t believe that what’s happened here has gone beyond those limits,” said attorney Kevin Duffan. "If the court had sided with Judge Cales, then the whole PPTA would have come under fire. A lot of the toll projects in the Commonwealth are predicated upon the PPTA being constitutional."
Collection of tolls on the two tunnels is expected to begin in 2014 to help cover the $2.1 billion project by the Virginia Department of Transportation and Elizabeth River Crossings partnership. The project will will build a second Midtown Tunnel, rehab the Downtown Tunnels and extend/upgrade the Martin Luther King Freeway.
Tolls initially would range from $1.59 to $1.84 per car for the tunnels and $.50 for the MLK Extension for tunnel users and $1 for non-tunnel users.
The tunnels connect Portsmouth and Norfolk over the Elizabeth River. Following the Supreme Court's decision, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said that although tunnel improvements are crucial to the economy's growth the tolls are "excessive."
"Shifting the obligations of operation and maintenance, among other components to the operators, results in a toll greater than commercially reasonable. The Commonwealth must revisit the toll structure. It is incumbent upon the Governor and the General Assembly to consider amendments to the financing or other financing opportunities which would result in a less onerous, more reasonable toll for the citizens and businesses of Norfolk and the region. All of this should be done in consultation with impacted local governments and in full transparency which the previous process lacked,” Fraim said.
On the WVEC13 Facebook page, Richard Miller said, "All this means is .. I'm not going to Portsmouth."
Charles Greenhood, a downtown Portsmouth business owner, is upset at the ruling.
“Quite frankly, we’re hoping that the people involved, who have been involved, will continue to be involved and we’ll come up with some sort of plan that will make sense so that we can reverse what the Supreme Court reversed on us.”
Reacting to the decision, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said, "The attorney general's job is to defend and uphold the laws of the commonwealth, and that's what we did in this case. While I understand some people in Hampton Roads dislike these tolls, Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act is a significant law that makes it possible to develop major transportation projects that might not otherwise be built. Those projects are needed to decrease congestion on our roads, which is critical to keeping business and commuters moving throughout the commonwealth."
Elizabeth River Crossings issued this statement: "With the Supreme Court of Virginia’s ruling handed down today that reverses the Circuit Court’s order, Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) can continue to deliver the Elizabeth River Tunnels Project in full compliance with our Comprehensive Agreement with VDOT, to bring this vital transportation network to Hampton Roads."