PORTSMOUTH---2013 proved to be the most pivotal year yet in the ongoing tunnel tolls war.
2012 ended with a pending lawsuit against the state filed by the group Tidewater Against Unfair tolls. By the end of February 2013, city leaders in Portsmouth joined the grassroots effort against tolls.
“We are going to put some financial horsepower behind the legal costs," Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright said before approving a resolution to donate $50,000 for legal costs. Anti-toll activists had already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the suit, and they put their trust in high profile attorney Patrick McSweeney.
Their first battle would come in May in Portsmouth Circuit Court. Judge James Cales ruled that tolls under the state contract with Elizabeth River Crossings were unconstitutional. This gave activists their first victory.
“This was obviously a disappointment to us,” said VDOT’s attorney Stuart Raphael. “But we get a fresh start in the Supreme Court of Virginia."
The Attorney General's appeal to the high court came quickly, which set the stage for battle number two in September.
Meanwhile, construction of the new Midtown tunnel continued and the state was determined to move forward with the current contract. "[Cales] didn't stop construction, he stopped tolling,” McSweeney said. “But if they want to go ahead and hold a gun to the head of the state and continue construction, something is wrong with that contract."
The Virginia Supreme Court hearing only took a day, but seven justices wouldn't’t hand down their opinion until October. They eventually sided with the state. This meant tolls would start in February, 2014.
“It's going to be devastating, especially during these tough economic times," Mayor Wright said.
Shortly after that decision, Governor Bob McDonnell assured the people of Hampton Roads that new transportation dollars would prevent tolls from becoming the norm.
Then, at the end of the year Governor Elect Terry McAuliffe told 13News Now that he would make lowering the Midtown and Downtown tunnel tolls a top priority. "We cannot have tolls so high that they affect people’s ability to get around and their quality of life.”, says McAuliffe