Court rules in favor of group fighting tunnel tolls

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by 13News

WVEC.com

Posted on May 1, 2013 at 1:12 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 1 at 8:19 PM

PORTSMOUTH -- A judge ruled in favor of  the Citizens Against Unfair Tolls on Wednesday. 

The group of businesses and residents filed a lawsuit to stop tolls planned for the Downtown and Midtown tunnels and the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway in Portsmouth.

"It was just so exciting. I don't know how else to describe it. It was totally exciting," said Terry Danaher with Citizens Against Unfair Tolls.

Portsmouth City Council voted 7-0 on March 26 to help fund the lawsuit by giving $50,000 to help with legal fees.

"The citizens of Hampton Roads were firm believers in this from Day One. They, actually, are the reason we got in the middle of it here in the City of Portsmouth. We were hoping other cities would follow suit, but that didn't happen," Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright said. "We didn't get much from the elected officials in the other cities, but citizens from all over Hampton Roads were calling us, emailing us, telling us, 'Hey, this isn't right. Hang in there. We need you.' So, that was very encouraging."

The tolls, set to begin in 2014, would pay for a second Midtown Tunnel, improvements to the Downtown Tunnel and expand the expressway.

Va. Attorney General spokesman Brian Gottstein told WVEC.com Thursday that the the state has three months to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court once the judge enters his order. That order had not been filed as of Thursday afternoon.

In court Wednesday, attorneys representing VDOT and Elizabeth River Crossings argued that tolls are not taxes, the basis of the lawsuit, and that the plaintiffs "factual foundation is not there."

Attorney Norman Thomas said that all arguments in the suit are "extremely misconstrued."

The State also argued that tolls are user fees, not forced charges.

The group stated the Virginia Department of Transportation and Elizabeth River Crossings don't have the authority to impose taxes because the existing tunnels' construction costs have been paid.

"This is a national issue," Danaher told 13News. "This P3 (Public-Private Partnership) kind of deal where there is all this secret, back-room bundling and dealing, and it is an invitation to corruption, frankly."

Brian Gottstein, spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, released the following statement following the ruling:

The revenues raised through the tolls on the tunnels were user fees to be used solely for a single transportation project.   As such, we still believe the tolls cannot be considered a tax, and that it is completely within VDOT's authority to set reasonable tolls to pay for the construction, operation, and maintenance of that project.  Certainly, we are disappointed with the court's decision.  We expect to appeal.
 
If this ruling stands and becomes the law of Virginia, it would threaten the Commonwealth's ability to use public-private partnerships to construct major transportation projects.  Many tolled projects could require legislative approval before proceeding, which would mean significantly increased costs and construction delays.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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