Fighting tolls – and bad transportation deals
The Supreme Court of Virginia may have ended our legal challenge to the Downtown and Midtown tunnel tolls, but our effort for fair and affordable transportation solutions continues.
South Hampton Roads commuters, small businesses and community organizations deserve relief, as too many of us will be subject to the impact of the tolls as soon as February.
Providing relief should be a priority as we approach the 2014 session of the General Assembly. It is estimated that $3.6 billion in additional transportation funding will be generated from Hampton Roads under the bipartisan transportation funding bill during the last session. Just a small portion of this could:
* Provide tax rebates for commuters, small businesses and community organizations that provide transport and mobile services.
* Allow individuals attending to family medical emergencies to have essential travel between hospitals and doctors “validated” if their route takes them though the tunnels.
Currently, commuters who rely on the tunnels to get to work and school, shuttle children and other family members to appointments and otherwise participate in the civic, social and religious life of South Hampton Roads will pay more than $1,000 per year for two daily trips through a tunnel. Businesses and nonprofits that rely on the tunnels to carry out their promises to their clients and the community will experience, at a minimum, added costs of $2,000 per year.
Some of us will have no problems bearing these costs, but most of us will.
The median household income for Norfolk and Portsmouth is $41,739 and $44,410 respectively.
The Supreme Court’s ruling undemocratically allowed a 2 percent to 4 percent surcharge on many area families. Given that the average weekly wage in the region is $848, many commuters will lose more than a week’s worth of wages on tolls.
Providing relief should be a priority in the next legislative session. We should continue the fight for commuters who work hard to stay afloat and students who have to find a thousand additional dollars to meet their education expenses. It would be a travesty if an emerging small business were forced to close due to an expense unforeseen two years ago.
There is no doubt that community organizations that transport individuals to critical services, provide home-delivered meals to people in need and assist in the care of our children and elders will be forced to scale back.
We cannot afford these losses in economic productivity and an already shrinking social safety net.
Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe has committed to examine the terms of the tunnel projects in a way that could significantly lower the costs of tolls. His commitment to renegotiate the $2.1 billion, 58-year deal should be applauded.
In addition to short-term relief, we hope proposed solutions will focus on long-term changes to Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act.
The current administration prioritized expedient and opaque deals over carefully considered and transparent decision-making. This allowed zero legislative oversight, a noncompetitive process for awarding contracts and a public that was kept oblivious of plans.
If we do not bring a greater level of accountability, competition and citizen participation to the process of public-private partnership projects, they will become more expensive in the future.
Efforts to avert this should be a priority in the upcoming session through:
* The creation of a transparent process, which would include compulsory public hearings, to determine the level of state-supported financing for P3 projects.
* An oversight mandated by statute to ensure that no project commences without approval from the General Assembly.
In addition to seeking relief for drivers, the General Assembly must make these crucial changes to the Public-Private Transportation Act. Not just for Hampton Roads but for the entire state.
In the span of 18 years, P3s have evolved far beyond their original intent into entities free of oversight and accountability. In a short time, we have experienced incredible erosions in faith in P3s to play a constructive role in transportation.
Not only will these legislative changes provide fairness, they will restore the public’s faith in its leadership to act in its interest.