Portsmouth delegate plans to utilize ODU study to fight for toll relief

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- Is it possible that Richmond could give more toll relief for the Downtown and Midtown tunnels?

If a local delegate wins his fight, the answer is yes. 

It's an uphill battle, but State Delegate Steve Heretick (D) Portsmouth is willing to wage it. 

"This is the worst transportation deal in Virginia history," said Heretick as he stood at the mouth of the Downtown Tunnel on the Portsmouth side. 

Do not think Heretick doesn't realize the challenge.

"I know this is heavy lifting," he said. 

Del. Heretick is as angry about the tolls today as he was five years ago, and is responding to a report on the impact of tolls produced by Dr. James Koch, an economics professor at Old Dominion University. 

"The tunnels are a regional facility and they are helping the entire region, but it's Portsmouth paying the most for them, easily," says Dr. Koch. 

Responding to that, Heretick says, "We have seen a loss of business and of economic opportunity."

Four years and four months after the tolls began, Portsmouth still bares the brunt of regional tolls,

"Portsmouth is a city with a relatively lower income than the rest of the region. It is being hurt proportionately more than any other city, including Norfolk," Dr. Koch added. 

Heretick responds to that, "The more these tolls go up, the more it is going to hurt commerce on both sides of the river. It will hurt our ports to do business internationally."

Dr. Koch's report finds downtown Portsmouth on High Street has been hit especially hard. 

At The Kitchen Koop, which is a European style kitchen boutique, business is off 20 percent.

"Tolls have affected my business," said owner Deon Foster. "We've all been hit. We've all been hit, we have." 

Foster's slower business is getting slower.  "I would say it has gotten worse. Not better when it comes to the tolls."

Foster's business is now coming from Suffolk and Isle of Wight County and places west that do not require going through the tunnels and the tolls. 

"The Norfolk side is off.  People don't want to pay the toll," she said. 

Koch adds, "Portsmouth's taxable sales have been decreased by almost $9 million a year, and that means $400,000 a year in tax collections (lost)." 

Heretick is supportive of Koch's report, "objective reports like Dr. Kochs are essential to making our  case."

Exactly what will Heretick do to lower, freeze, or eliminate tolls?  Even he admits the task involves "heavy lifting." 

"We want to make sure there is a funding mechanism in place to defray, pay off, or pay down tolls for future generations." 

Skeptics say it's a long shot, but Heretick is ready to fight again, "We have to find financial resources necessary whether from state ... or other mechanisms to help pay this down or pay it off."

Here is the new political dynamic, Heretick thinks he will find sympathetic ears from other regions that deal with tolls too -- but our tolls are different.

"In Northern Virginia, you pay a toll for convenience. Here in Portsmouth you pay a toll for necessity. That is the essential difference."

Koch's report found the tolling situation in Portsmouth is only getting worse.  On High Street and at the Kitchen Koop, Foster is thinking the way Heretick is on what can be done.

"Paying down the tolls, paying down the bonds," Foster said. 

As for Dr. Cook's report, well, it's going to Richmond in January, and Del. Heretick will be carrying it.

"This is information that I, and my colleagues, will take back to Richmond, and we will say, 'see, you might have believed us before, but here is what we have," Heretick says. "This was created by people who were no longer accountable to the people.  To get this right now, I and my colleagues are accountable.  It is our mess to clean up,  and I intend to do that."

Heretick won't be alone. He's joined by Portsmouth's delegation of two members of the House of Delegates and three State Senators.

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