RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) - Members of the Portsmouth community packed the General Assembly House Appropriations Interim Meeting in Richmond Monday about the update on the Downtown-Midtown Tunnel Legal Challenge.
A Portsmouth Circuit Court judge ruled the proposed tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels are unconstitutional because the tolls on the Downtown Tunnel are not used to expand the Downtown Tunnel, but are diverted to build the Midtown Tunnel and the MLK Freeway Extension.
Sixty local residents traveled to Richmond -- mostly together on a bus -- to hear the Secretary of Transportation give an update on the legal challenges that threaten the $2.1 billion construction project.
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton needed several gulps of bottled water to get through an hour presentation on how Virginia is currently losing the legal battle to get tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels. He had heated exchanges with Portsmouth Delegate Jonny Joannou.
"Why isn't the whole agreement invalid?" asked Joannou.
Connaughton responded, "I can't answer that question right now."
Joannou pushed back, "How many challenges have there been, that a toll is a tax?"
"I am not aware of any," said Connaughton.
It got worse for Connaughton, who told legislators if the State loses at the State Supreme Court level, and the tolls deal falls through with Elizabeth River Crossings, then it could cost the State another $700 million in breakup fees.
"If the State Supreme Court rules it is unconstitutional, is the State obligated under the agreement?" asked Joannou.
"Yes...but we will have to see what the decision is," said Connaughton in reply.
Sitting not far from Connaughton was Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Gregory Whirley, who signed the New Tunnel Tolls deal as part of the Public-Private Transportation Act on behalf of the state.
Wagging his finger at Connaughton, Joannou gave his sharpest lecture near the end of the meeting.
"Everyone can talk about how a $1.84 toll is nothing. Well, it might be nothing to us sitting up here, but it is a hell of a lot of money for people back home. How about gas prices, parking?" he said.
"They are out of work. This is a bad time. The Downtown Tunnel has four lanes. Two are coming in, and two are going out. You are not adding any new lanes, you aren't putting any new lanes on it, and you are putting a $1.84 toll and $11 dollars for a truck. Not adding one new lane. Not one," Joannou continued.
"That is a heck of a burden you are putting on the citizens of Hampton Roads," Joannou said. "You are talking about another $26 for every food truck going to the other side of the river. We are affecting the lives of a lot of people. A lot of people are struggling to make a living. Wages are getting cut because of federal jobs.
"Do you know what the average wage is in Portsmouth?," asked Joannou, while looking directly at Connaughton. "$23,000 per person. $23,000. That is the average wage, go ahead and look it up. $23,000 a year. Can you pay those tolls making $23,000 a year."
What became clear during the House Appropriations meeting was that there are a lot of discussions behind the scenes at the Department of Transportation on what could happen if the State Supreme Court upholds that tolls on the tunnels are unconstitutional.
Portsmouth Resident Roger Cornett organized the bus trip to Richmond.
"My standpoint is they are trying to kill Portsmouth and Norfolk," Cornett said. "They cannot afford to pay these high tolls."
WAVY.com asked Connaughton if the middle ground in this disagreement could be to put a toll only on the Midtown Tunnel.
"That is the ultimate question," Connaughton said. "We are not sure."
Connaughton said the earliest the State Supreme Court could hear the appeal would be in September with a decision made by December. It is unknown what might happen in the General Assembly that reconvenes in January.
Tolls are set to begin February 1, 2014.
The amphibious transport dock USS New York left Norfolk Naval Station Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 to move to Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla.
Five residents were displaced after an apartment building caught fire overnight in Hampton.
Chesapeake Police just released surveillance images and video from a prescription medication theft at a Rite Aid.