ERC task force looks for options to get out of toll contract

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CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — For the first time, a task force convened to specifically focus on one objective: finding a way to get out of the state contract with Elizabeth River Crossings.

Inside a board room in Chesapeake on Monday afternoon, a group made up of eight local elected leaders, business people and planning organization members gathered to find ways to have the state buy down and to eliminate the tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.

The Commonwealth agreed to a deal with Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) under former Governor Bob McDonnell in 2011. In exchange for the development and operation of the new Midtown Tunnel and Martin Luther King Freeway extension, ERC was given exclusive rights to set and collect tolls on the Downtown and Midtown crossings for 58 years.

The rates have the ablitiy to increase annually. 

“Whoever approved it on the state side was not so brilliant,” said Terry Danaher, chairperson of the Community Transportation Advisory Committee and member of the ERC Task Force. “Pretty greedy when you get right down to it.”

For eight years, Danaher has been upset that the private partners are reaping tens of millions of dollars in an unfair toll deal on the backs of the people.

Monday, the task force elected Mayor John Rowe, City of Portsmouth, to be its chair.

“We are trying to blow up the ERC contract,” Rowe said to the group.

The tolls, which began in 2014, hurt Portsmouth principally, according to a June 2018 report by Old Dominion University’s Economics Professor Dr. James Koch. But the study found the whole region has been hurt. 

“The only way out of this is buy down the contract or buy out the contract,” said Mayor Kenny Alexander, of Norfolk who was elected as the task force’s vice-chair.

It is currently estimated it would take $1 billion to buy down the tolls, according to Rowe. A cost the region’s municipalities couldn’t handle.

Instead, the task force indicated it would look to find holes in the contract in an effort to end the current relationship. 

“We ought to just go, get all the particulars and come back. So at least we know what the heck were dealing with,” said Sheppard Miller with the Commonwealth Transportation Board. 

The task force adjourned indicating that their first step is to meet with a member of the Attorney General’s office to have a close look at the contract. 

Following the meeting, Danaher told 10 On Your Side that possible solutions may not result in a total toll free ride. She said if Virginia Department of Transportation took over tolling however, she would have a different attitude. 

“Absolutely it would be different because then the money would be ours,” Danaher said. “It would stay in the region and circulate like it should have been done in the first place.”

While ERC did not respond to our request for comment Monday, in previous coverage as spokesperson stated “we are happy to meet with members of the group for informational purposes if it would be helpful.”

The state has already paid down over $125 million in tolls, and paid down enough to make the Martin Luther King Freeway free.

Correction: On WAVY-TV 10 and WVBT-TV FOX43 it was reported that it would cost nearly $400 million to pay down the tolls. That was incorrect. In an earlier version of this story on WAVY.com it was stated that Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe said it would cost $391 million to buy down the debt service on the deal. In actuallity, the number Rowe was referencing is the amount of money spent by the state initally to pay down the tolls. In addition, on WAVY.com it was reported that tolls have been in place on the tunnel since 2012 NOT 2014. We regret the errors.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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