HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – Back in 2002, Hampton Roads was a divided region. 

Many called it “The Road Tax Referendum” to pay our way out of traffic gridlock by raising taxes. 

The referendum was defeated, but looking back now, some of our political leaders call that rejection short-sighted. 

They say that defeat paved the way for costly tolls, and increased costs on transportation projects that were built anyway. 

This 2002 referendum would have raised the sales tax one penny on the dollar from 4.5% to 5.5%. That would have raised $7 billion dollars over the next 20 years for transportation projects, including a new Midtown Tunnel Tube with no tolls.  

Back in 2002 10 On Your Side extensively reported on the road tax referendum. 

Those opposed would stand on street corners with signs “Ax the Tax” and “Vote no on the Tax.” 

Then a city activist, former Virginia Beach City Councilman John Moss spoke passionately against the referendum.

“This is important because this is the wrong way to finance roads in Virginia,” Moss said.

Former Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim and other elected city leaders disagreed.  They predicted the state would never have enough money to satisfy Hampton Roads demands for necessary road construction projects,  

“If we don’t fix our long-term economic vitality, the quality of life, everything we do in this region will suffer,” Fraim said.

Just over 20 years later, Virginia Beach Delegate Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) looked back on that failed referendum vote and ponders what might have been.

“You have to spend money to make money,” Knight said, “and if we had done this earlier, we would probably have better crossings at the Elizabeth River and no tolls.” 

Virginia Beach State Senator Bill DeSteph (R) Virginia Beach agrees.

“Had we passed the referendum we wouldn’t be paying tolls on the Midtown Tunnel, or Downtown Tunnel,” DeSteph said.

Back in September 2002, WAVY reported what the Road Tax Referendum would build: 

  • A third river crossing heading towards the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel. Today the feasibility, permit ability, and constructability are still under discussion through the Regional Connectors Study.   
  • The 64 widening on the peninsula which was constructed anyway mostly with new taxes dedicated to new road projects. Had the 2002 referendum passed the widening would have been far less expensive to taxpayers.  
  • A new tube at the Midtown Tunnel along with the MLK Freeway Extension, both have been constructed anyway, but with a far more expensive construction deal that has been extensively criticized including tolls that will last for decades. 

The referendum would have paid for U.S. Route 460 improvements which today have not been constructed. Due to environmental considerations, the Route 460 and Southeastern Parkway projects as explained in the 2002 referendum are not under discussion today. 

Mass transit has been addressed with the 2020 action by the Virginia General Assembly, which created annual funding of $30 million for Hampton Roads to fund the 757 Express regional backbone network. 

The referendum would not have paid for the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel expansion, which is under construction and is Virginia’s largest transportation project ever. The HRBT will include tolls to help pay for it, but there will be non-tolled lanes drivers can use.  

Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck often wonders what if.

“It was said not too long ago if we had that one penny,” Tuck said, “we could have taken care expanding the Midtown and Downton tunnels and possibly no toll on the Coleman Bridge.” 

State Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) blames politics for killing the referendum, with cries of “don’t raise my taxes.” 

“It was all because we allowed politics to get involved and that was not what the citizens wanted, but that’s what it was,” Spruill said.

We asked Knight where would we be had the referendum passed in 2002? 

“We could probably be in better shape than where we are now because we could be ahead of the curve rather than behind the curve,” Knight said. “There would be no tolls on the Midtown Tunnel is very true, and it was short-sighted, yes, short-sighted.”