$100 Million in Mo’ Money for Hampton Roads Tunnels

Step right up, there’s plenty to go around!

The Virginia Department of Transportation has reached financial close with Elizabeth River Crossings to begin construction of the new $2.1 billion Midtown/Downtown Tunnel project in Norfolk. Also, Governor Bob McDonnell announced today, he will ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board to allocate “up to $100 million” to cover the cost of delaying the tolls until January 2014.

That extra $100 million comes on top of VDOT’s $300 million contribution under the terms of the deal. The good news is that VDOT had originally anticipated kicking in $362 million but was able to pare back its commitment thanks to lower interest rates. Thus, in effect, the state is plowing back $62 million into toll rate relief and contributing a net of only $38 million more.

In a press release issued this morning, the McDonnell administration addressed the volatile reaction in south Hampton Roads to the imposition of tolls on facilities that had been paid off years ago and been enjoyed toll-free since. In an interim agreement negotiated before McDonnell took office, said the press release, the estimated toll was $2.89 for cars. That rate will be lower, $1.59 to $1.84 per car initially under the current plan depending on time of day, although rates will rise over time.

Politically, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Will Hampton Roads residents be mollified? McDonnell’s plan eliminates the paying of tolls before the new facilities are actually built, a gross injustice in anybody’s book, and he can claim to have brought down toll rates lower than they would have been. On the other hand, many Hampton Roads residents object to paying any toll. This may not satisfy them.

Also, now that the governor has agreed to buy down tolls for Hampton Roads commuters, he has set a precedent for the Rail-to-Dulles project, for which Democrats have been pushing for an additional $300 million in relief over and above $150 million already promised. If Hampton Roads gets a total state contribution of $400 million, will $150 be enough to satiate Northern Virginia? Or will the governor cave and hand over the full $450 million?

If he does, what’s to stop the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has been put in charge of the heavy rail project, from making more decisions that add to the cost of the project? Will MWAA back off its decision to stack the deck for Phase 2 bidding in favor of companies operating under union Project Labor Agreements at the risk of a higher winning bid?

Finally, is there any rhyme or reason left to how state transportation dollars are allocated to mega-projects? All of they money we’re talking about here is borrowed, and it’s all exempt from traditional funding formulas which, for all their imperfections, do distribute money around the state according to criteria related to population and need. The calculus is purely political, divorced from any social and economic Return on Investment.


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  1. apples and oranges! If you think Hampton does not like tolls for tunnels… propose tolls for rail/transit and see what happens.

    re: “buying down tolls”… with what money collected from whom?

    Does anyone really think at the end of the day that the money that the Gov buys down Hampton tolls with – won’t ultimately come out of the pockets of Hampton drivers?

    Does anyone really think that the money to buy down those tolls is going to instead come from NoVa or RoVa?

    People hate tolls…. but they hate the gas tax even more and they remind me of kids who have to choose from a range of things none of which they like so they choose none.

    To that end, the Gov is more responsible than the leaders of Hampton Region who basically have bailed out of the leadership responsibilities in planning for infrastructure. And what you’re getting with the Gov’s solution is a second shoe waiting to drop as the state runs out of the new money it used to get bond financing. Once that is gone.. there won’t be any more “buying down” …anything… unless of course the next Gov is one of them tax&spend Dems that the GOP loves to slice and dice when they propose more money for transportation.

  2. The many hypocritical NoVA politicians are screaming that the state needs to buy down tolls for the DTR. I don’t oppose getting any money from Richmond, so long as it doesn’t require us to send more money to Richmond first.
    But where were these same people when the funding plan for Dulles Rail was first adopted? The plan included increased tolls on DTR drivers. And a number of people raised the issue of cost overruns. They were hooted down. There would be no cost overruns. Bechtel would never do that. And by God, this was rail – what would fix traffic congestion., By and large, most NoVA politicians were silent. Whether they wanted to be team players for Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine or woo contributions from Bechtel or the Tysons landowners, they were silent – Republicans and Democrats alike. About the only people who raised questions were then Senator Cuccinelli and Pat Herrity. About the only people who fought for a fixed-price bid on a tunnel option were John Foust, Chap Petersen and Dave Marsden. But now, since the public has become aware that DTR drivers have sold out by local politicos and are the sacrificial lambs paying for rail construction, the local officials are yet one more time trying to blame Richmond. It makes it hard to hold down one’s meal.

  3. TMT – would you be opposed to HOT lane tolls helping to pay for Dulles Rail?

    on the basic concept – what say you? Is it okay to use road tolls to pay for transit?

    On local elected and transportation planning and funding. With few exceptions, most are fairly feckless and much prefer to blame Richmond and VDOT for their own lack of responsible leadership when it comes to transportation. Virtually all of them are looking for Fed/State handouts even as they spout the “taxes are evil” kook-aid.

    Harry Byrd did serious damage to governance in Va when he basically allowed local elected to evade responsibility for transportation.

    We can thank the Republicans for their no-tax approach to transportation.

    We now know what Republicans really mean when they say “starve the beast”, eh? the tax-eating “beast” then turns to tolls…..

    In terms of which of the two has a stronger user-pays nexus… for me..it’s a no-brainer. When I pay to use a road – each time… it’s pretty clear that I’m getting something for my money. When I pay 35 cents a gallon in taxes, I have no idea where that money goes but I hope the potholes get fixed and the snow removed. Beyond that … any extra money left over is basically a slush fund for developers and others who see it as free money.

    I’d much rather pay local taxes to pay for local roads and tolls for major roads than be creating slush funds for the politically-connected.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    People don’t hate tolls. They hate the knowledge that they have to pay A LOT to drive while others in the same state pay NOTHING. Everybody in Singapore pays to drive and nobody thinks it unfair.

    “All of they money we’re talking about here is borrowed, and it’s all exempt from traditional funding formulas which, for all their imperfections, do distribute money around the state according to criteria related to population and need.”.

    What a croc. The observable outcomes prove that the money does not go to meet the need. The Richmond metropolitan area has 1/2 the population of the Washington metropolitan area. Yet, I95/I495 (the Washington beltway) has four lanes as does I295/ VA 288 (the Richmond beltway). Tidewater is about 50% bigger than Richmond and the Tidewater beltway I64/I664 is also four lanes.

    Anybody driving from Northern Virginia to Tidewater (or visa versa) sees this first hand. You crawl around the Washington Beltway and then crawl down I95S. Things open up south of Quantico and then you make steady progress to the I295 intersection. On I295, it’s “Katy bar the door!”. With a 65 mph limit the only real issue on the Richmond beltway is going slow enough to avoid a speeding ticket. From there I64E runs pretty well until you get close to Tidewater. Things slow down and you eventually get onto I664 where you experience congestion.

    I295 around Richmond was built in 1981. The southern section of VA288 was completed in 1989.

    In 1980 the combined population of Henrico, Richmond and Chesterfield was 541,321. That year, the combined population of Fairfax, Arlington and DC was 1,388,333. Yet, somehow, the decision was made to build a four lane beltway around Richmond while leaving the four lane beltway around Washington essentially untouched.

    Today, the predictable result is visible both qualitatively and quantitatively. Richmond, et al has a population of 827K, DC et al has a population of 1.9M. The four lane Washington beltway through Virginia is choked with traffic while the four land beltway around Richmond is free flowing. The answer in DC is usurious tolls while the answer around Richmond is more speed traps to prevent exceeding the 65 mph limit on I295.

    Jim, your contentions are absurd.

  5. well.. I’ve often wondered the same thing about Richmond’s roads and I-295 but I wanna tell you that I-295 apparently was built on the cheap and/or heavily-used and there are places that are coming apart and will need expensive rehabilitation soon.

    288 is a toll road, right? one that came close to default if I recall.

    The Gov has made no secret of his intentions to toll I-95 and I presume the only thing holding him back is approval of the Feds which are in the process of giving up their long-standing opposition to tolling the interstates.

    I give this Gov credit. He HAS made progress especially compared to his predecessors whose efforts in comparison to McDonnell (or is it Connaughton?).

    I think one could criticize McD on what he did or did not do but in the whole scheme of things – he did do something and by virtue of that fact, made the choices he wanted.

    The fact that virtually no one “likes” what he has done and at the same time has offered no other realistic alternatives… makes him The Man.

    I’m not sure what other choices he had because too many folks know / believe that just raising the gas tax a nickle or so would not change the game in any meaningful way other than to get some folks thrown out of office.

    1. You’re thinking of the Pocohontas Parkway. (Which reminds me, by the way, that the Richmond region has *three* toll roads, not two as I said earlier in an exchange with Don the Ripper. And this one has absolutely no connection with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority.) That deal was renegotiated and a private-sector player stepped in to run it.

      288 is not a toll road. But it should have been. Of course, if it had been, it never paid for itself and the state would have had to step in and “buy down” the toll rates — either that, or it never would have been built. Don the Ripper would have defended it against Sons of Pocahontas Luddites like myself who insist that road projects cut through the boonies pay their own way…. Until he realized that it was located in the Richmond metropolitan area, in which case he would have denounced it as more pork for Richmond.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        My thinking is simple (and perhaps simple minded). If Richmond has half the population of DC than the Richmond Beltway should have half the lanes of the DC beltway. Maybe 3 for Richmond, 4 for Tidewater and 6 for DC. After that, start installing tool booths.

  6. Larry, I would oppose using HOT Lanes tolls to fund Dulles Rail. HOT Lanes have nothing to do with Dulles Rail.
    I’d like to see local roads turned over to counties; gasoline tax reported on a local jurisdiction basis; authority given to localities to set their gas taxes within a range; authority for localities to retain all local gas taxes; no additional state money for local roads; and the state to be in charge and fund statewide roads. We also need an enforceable adequate public facilities law; and an enforceable proffers/impact fee law. Both the state and local gas taxes (amount and range, respectively, should be indexed, as well as transportation proffers and impact fees. In other words, there would be equality between the increases in gas taxes and developer extractions.

  7. Don, Maintenance dollars, which account for most formula spending, go to maintain bridges and roads. Northern Virginia roads may be marginally worse than other urban Virginia roads but they are not remarkably so. For the most part, the money goes where it needs to go. Yes, the maintenance allocation formula needs updating, but you cannot blame the atrocious driving conditions in NoVa on the maintenance formula.

    If we cranked up the gasoline tax, as you advocate, there would be more money for construction. But you still wouldn’t be happy. Because the construction allocation formula wouldn’t provide NoVa nearly enough money to meet its perceived needs. If you want to accomplish your goals, you would need (a) a higher motor fuels tax, and (b) a major change in VDOT’s construction allocation formula. Even then, you’d fall far short of what it took to build NoVa’s way out of its traffic congestion.

    To make NoVa transportation work, you’d also have to have some combination of TMT’s list of reforms and Ed Risse’s balanced communities approach. But I never hear you talking about those things. All I hear is you blaming “Richmond.”

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “To make NoVa transportation work, you’d also have to have some combination of TMT’s list of reforms and Ed Risse’s balanced communities approach.”.

      Tisk, tisk, James. Go back and read my comments. I support many of TMT’s suggested improvements such as an adequate public facilities law. I only ask whether that law needs to be passed at the state or local level in a strong Dillon’s Rule state such as Virginia. Since the money for transportation is controlled by the Nanny State I assume the Nanny State would have to pass and enforce the adequate public facilities law. I agree with LarryG’s idea of de-volving control of local roads. However, I want the localities to have authority for taxation as well. I see the screw job Henrico gets from the Clown Show and don’t want to take that deal. The state needs to stop collecting most of the gas tax. Localities need to determine their own mechanism for collecting taxes to support local roads and the localities need to manage their local roads.

      As for Ed Risse – you have thrown him under the bus. The RTD project is a perfect example of working toward alpha communities where people can live, work and play. Revamping Tyson’s is another. I am willing to pay the extra freight when I drive on the Dulles Toll Road to get that done (and I hit the Toll Rd at least 8 times a week). You have ignored Ed. Ed never claimed that remaking human settlement patterns would be cheap or easy. You like the idea until anybody has to pay anything. Then, you go back to “sprawl is better than paying taxes”.

      As for your plan for ROIs on roads – I agree as well. I just want anybody who takes the ROIs to court to pay for the court costs of the Commonwealth if they lose the suit. My concern is that unscrupulous litigation happy NIMBYs will use the ROIs to tie up every project forever as they argue with everything. They can argue. If they win, the Commonwealth should pay their court costs. However, if they lose, they should pay the Commonwealth’s court costs. Why don’t you run that idea past your pals at the SELC or the PEC.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    “If we cranked up the gasoline tax, as you advocate, there would be more money for construction. But you still wouldn’t be happy. Because the construction allocation formula wouldn’t provide NoVa nearly enough money to meet its perceived needs.”.

    I might not be happy but I’d be happier. Once again, you forget that perfect is the enemy of good. I’ll take better even if it isn’t perfect.

  9. Another significant factor is local neighborhood opposition to road expansion projects. A couple years ago, Transurban and VDOT sent up a trial balloon to extend the northern terminus of the Beltway HOT Lanes from roughly Old Dominion Drive to almost the George Washington Parkway. It was just a trial balloon as there was nothing but a conceptual drawing. Supervisor Foust and Delegate Comstock had a public meeting on the concept. The attendance was very large and very vocal. The project was attacked and the animosity level went through the ceiling. In view of such opposition and potential litigation, Transurban and VDOT flushed the HOT Lanes concept. I don’t expect this reaction is unique.
    It may be NIMBY, but local elected officials are very sensitive to irate constituents. Won’t the Fourth Circuit case involving NC DOT also have an impact on road projects that some oppose, assuming NC DOT loses? In many ways, Fairfax County is built out and may not be able to absorb a significant increase in population or jobs. I am not sure either way.

  10. The local opposition to transportation projects is probably one of the reasons VDOT has reached out to the community for expanding capacity on Route 7. VDOT has formed a small committee consisting of representatives from the Tysons Partnership, McLean, Reston, Great Falls, Loudoun County, and Vienna to meet with VDOT and Fairfax County DOT people to green-light on issues related to expanding Route 7 to three lanes in each direction and possible transit uses. I think it’s a good idea to work for by-in first.

  11. anti-road NIMBY sentiment has as much to do with NoVa (most places) congestion as funding does. Everyone fiercely protects the confines of their neighborhoods even as they bitterly complain about the congestion. It’s a lot like their desire for more infrastructure but accompanied by a staunch refusal to want to pay higher gas taxes for it.

    DJ characterizes this as a problem with Richmond. I don’t think so. I think the problem is mostly local. VDOT has no problem using ruthless eminent domain once they have their marching orders and funding in hand. Local elected on the other hand are much more circumspect and respect the ire of local voter sentiment.

    I think VDOT needs money for state level roads like every other state DOT does. I know of no other states that “share” the gas tax with the localities. It’s up to the localities themselves to come up with transportation money and as far as I know they do it primarily with real estate and personal property taxes and in some cases a local option gas tax.

    People do not appreciate just how expensive highway infrastructure costs especially in urbanized areas. A brand new High School would buy about a mile or two or urbanized road. They are used to the state “paying” for it – as if the state got the money from somewhere other than them.

  12. It’s safe to say that if folks could have taken a vote on HOT lanes that they never would have happened.

    What does that tell you about transportation infrastructure and planning?

    What it tells me is that if you try to do what citizens want – they would refuse to choose any option and oppose any that gain traction ….but fully blame those in charge for doing nothing a bout congestion.

    Transportation planning in Va is a no-win job.

    The mess down in Hampton is a classic case study. People don’t want taxes, tolls, or congestion. How do you deal with that? Basically by ignoring citizens and pushing ahead with plans from unelected officials – just as the HOT lanes were done.

    When it comes to roads, people are like herds of animals. They do not reason.

  13. Larry’s quotable quote: “When it comes to roads, people are like herds of animals. They do not reason.”

    Sad but true.

    Free roads are the middle-class entitlement.

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