Toll Patrol: Portsmouth leaders hope state will pay down tolls with COVID-19 relief money

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — As Virginia lawmakers prepare to make plans on how to spend more than $4 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, Portsmouth’s mayor has a suggestion: pay down the tolls.

Specifically, he wants the state to — at the very least — reduce the tolls of the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels between Portsmouth and Norfolk.

At Tuesday’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, Mayor Shannon Glover told council members that at a recent meeting with state legislators he received a “commitment in principle” from state Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) that his proposal would be “a consideration on the table.”

The tolls have been a point of extreme frustration and a political punching bag for the entire region since a deal to develop and operate them was inked by former Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011. Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC) was given exclusive rights to set and collect tolls on the Downtown and Midtown crossings for 58 years.

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The rates have gone up annually nearly every year and a 2018 study by Old Dominion University found Portsmouth is bearing the brunt of the effects. The study found the city loses roughly $2.2 million per quarter in tax revenue because of the tolls.

It’s no help for a city whose tax base already struggles because 40% of the real estate is tax-exempt because of the large government presence.

“Folks are understanding what we are dealing with in Portsmouth and our region,” Glover said.

City Council unanimously passed a resolution officially asking for the state to either buy back the contract or create a way to “permanently and significantly” lower the tolls during the special legislative session.

In 2019, an ERC Toll task force estimated it would take $1 billion to buy down the tolls. A Spanish infrastructure company Abertis officially closed on ERC for $2.3 billion in late December.

While it is not known if ERC would be willing to have their contract bought out, Glover believes now is the right time to think about it.

“I think in no time in our state, is the opportunity ripe for the state to take ownership to help us buy down these tolls,” Glover said.

Virginia lawmakers have $4.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act to divvy up.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Virginia) has already laid out some plans to use the money for broadband internet access, school building renovations, paying down employers unemployment insurance tax and small business help.

The federal government requires the money to be used to “help states respond to acute pandemic-response needs, fill revenue shortfalls, and support communities that COVID-19 hit hardest.”

In Hampton Roads, none of the seven cities have had more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people than Portsmouth.

At the Tuesday meeting, a speaker encouraged other Portsmouth residents to speak up, go to Richmond and support the City Council’s request.

Glover agreed.

“We will be there to voice those concerns and hopefully take away some of those dollars to reduce the tolls for the citizens for the city of Portsmouth and our region,” Glover said. “We must continue to advocate and take this forward.”

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