PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) - Dozens of Portsmouth residents, business owners and city council members traveled to Richmond Wednesday where the tolls debate took center stage in Virginia Supreme Court. The group is part of the Coalition Against Unfair Tolls.
The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments on whether or not the potential tolls in Portsmouth are constitutional. On one side is the Commonwealth, appealing a decision made by a Portsmouth Circuit Court judge. The judge's decision blocked the tolls from the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, saying it's unconstitutional for the General Assembly to give the Virginia Department of Transportation and its private partner the power to set tolls without clear guidelines or standards on limiting the tolls.
The Coalition Against Unfair tolls supports the original ruling and that tolls should be blocked.
"This isn't just a few cranky citizens who are upset about a toll. That's not what this is about," said Terry Danaher, who helped start the Coalition. "This is about a very bad contract based on a very bad law. And what we're looking at is the court backing up the decision that the judge made, which was a very solid decision. And helping the citizens of this state have a voice."
The Coalition is represented by Attorney Patrick McSweeney, whose legal fees were paid for by members of the Coalition and $50,000 from the City of Portsmouth.
"The revenues from the Downtown Tunnel are being used to justify the Midtown Tunnel and the Martin Luther King Extension new construction ... they want to toll those at the Downtown Tunnel because that's where the money from tolls is ... that has never been justified anywhere," McSweeney said.
Those on the side of VDOT and its private partner Elizabeth River Crossings wouldn't say much on the case.
"The court just got the case. Now, I won't get into the details," said ERC Attorney Stuart Raphael. "I will say I am glad the court decided to expedite this case and we will deliver the project to the best of our abilities and on time."
On Wednesday, Raphael argued that the tolls are simply user fees and that this case is the first in the nation to question tolls.
If the court decides to uphold the Portsmouth court's decision, the cost of terminating the contract between VDOT and ERC could be in excess of $400 million. ERC's President and CEO Greg Woodsmall said very little on the possibility of that happening.
"I am not in a position to discuss this. I think our attorney gave our statement," Woodsmall said. "We will work and deliver this project. We have a contract with VDOT we will live up to it ... I can't speak to that at this point. We will leave it up to the court that decides in November."
"We have not addressed how we will pay for this project if in fact we lose, and I don't think we will lose," said VDOT Commissioner Gregory Whirley. "We haven't crossed that bridge yet ... we will let the justices decide ... if we need to go to the General Assembly, then we will do that."
Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright called the debate a "David and Goliath case,"
"This is our Super Bowl ... unelected people cannot put tolls on the people," Wright said.
Only arguments were hear in court Wednesday. A decision won't be announced until October or November.
One issue that left some in the courtroom grumbling was a justice with potential conflict of interest. Two justices recused themselves from the case, but Supreme Court Justice Bill Mims -- who is a former Attorney General of Virginia -- did not.
When Mims served on the General Assembly, he voted for the Public-Private Transportation Act that is being questioned by the tunnel tolls case.
Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the attorney general's office, issued the following statement on Wednesday's hearing:
"The commonwealth has argued that the revenues raised through the tunnel tolls are user fees to be used solely for a single transportation project. As such, we 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 the project.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court granted an expedited appeal of the circuit court's decision, which called into question the commonwealth's ability to deliver critical infrastructure improvements by using public-private partnerships. We expect the court to issue a decision before the end of the year."
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