Congestion Tolls Coming to Hampton Roads?

Congestion on the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel

by James A. Bacon

Hampton Roads transportation planning officials are giving serious thought to putting tolls on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel as a tool to reduce congestion during periods of peak demand.

Under the conceptual plan presented Wednesday to the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), the toll would be set at whatever rate it took to create free-flowing traffic conditions at the two crossings, which are frequently subject to backups many miles long.

The purpose of the tolls would not be to pay for new construction nor to raise money for other purposes, Dwight L. Farmer, executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO), told the CTB. “The concept is simply to change behavior.”

Farmer suggested that modest tolls from $.50 to $1.50 per trip would be sufficient to induce travelers to shift their trips to less-congested times of day, although the tolls could run higher if that’s what it took to ameliorate congestion. “The idea is to utilize the capacity more effectively.”

Hampton Mayor Molly Ward

Farmer and Molly Ward, chairman of the HRTPO and mayor of the city of Hampton, brought up the idea as part of a broader presentation about the region’s top transportation priorities. The region is expected to generate roughly $200 million a year in new revenue under new transportation-funding legislation. That revenue over the next 50 years can be converted into roughly $3 billion in bonding capacity.

That may sound like a lot but it is not nearly sufficient to cover the region’s top transportation priorities, which include widening Interstate 64 on the Peninsula, expanding capacity of the two bridge-tunnels, widening I-64 south of the James River and improving the I-64/I-264 interchange, not to mention implementing high-speed, intercity passenger rail. The mega-projects are so expensive that a single one of them could gobble up the entire $3 billion.

Moreover, it could take 10 to 12 years of deliberations, studies, approvals and construction before any of those projects could be built. The beauty of the congestion toll, says Ward, is that it would require no longer than a year to get the regulatory green light and a year to install the tolling system. Thus, tolls could be a fast fix for congestion at two of the region’s worst bottlenecks.

The HRTPO has entertained the idea of congestion tolls since 2005, says Farmer, but Ward is the first political leader willing to take the flack for going public with it.

The toll could virtually eliminate congestion by changing the behavior of just 10% of drivers, Farmer says. He gave the example of a retired U.S. Navy officer who books a medical appointment at 8:00 a.m. when he could easily wait until later in the morning. There probably wouldn’t be a toll for 18 hours out of the day, and many days out of the year probably would be toll-free, he says.

Another advantage of the tolls, says Ward, is that they would collect real-world data on how price-sensitive traffic is in the region. Before dropping a couple billion dollars building a new tunnel, which would be financed through tolls, a congestion-tolling experiment would gather hard data on whether the market would support tolls needed to build a mega-project like a new tunnel. It is not unheard-of for toll revenues to fall short of projections, as investors in the Dulles Greenway and the Pocahontas Parkway discovered to their misfortune.

“You’re talking about spending an enormous amount of money,” says Ward. “Let’s generate some data and let that guide our decision.”

If this idea gets implemented, says Farmer, Virginia would be the first state outside of California to institute pure congestion tolls. The congestion tolls in Northern Virginia are being used to pay for adding lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95. “If it’s successful,” he adds, “it will change the way we do business.”

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30 responses to “Congestion Tolls Coming to Hampton Roads?”

  1. Oh my GAWD! if this ain’t Govmint social engineering, what is?

    who would have thought the right wing would support such a dastardly concept!

    oh wait… they don’t! so this has GOT to be a lefty liberal plot for sure!

    but you know what? It will work.

  2. It’s called using price as a rationing mechanism for scarce road capacity — a market-based principle, if ever there was one. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who deem themselves “conservatives” who will object. But that’s their inconsistency, not mine.

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    It will be interesting to me to see at what price points people will adjust their behaviors. The numbers mentioned in article seem low. It’s also hard to image “the example of a retired U.S. Navy officer who books a medical appointment at 8:00 a.m. when he could easily wait until later in the morning.” The Navy folks I know are quite a bit smarter than that.

  4. Jim Bacon is totally correct. It’s a market-based principle that totally blows away that roads are “free” and any/all can use capacity no matter when.

    Simply stated – you don’t make an appointment for 8am unless you are willing to pay the price required to make than appointment.

    People will make choices based on cost – both time and money …and “value” – “how important is this trip at this time?”

    but I can tell you this is not going to go into effect without a major kerfuffle. The folks down that way do not cotton to tolls and are even less friendly to the concept of variable tolls.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I am not suggesting that tolls are a bad idea here. Only that I’d think most people, particularly a retired naval officer, would reject a proposed 8 am medical appoint to avoid being struck for hours in rush hour long before he reject such a time because it saved him 50 cents to buck and a half.

  6. So how do you deal with the fact that many of the people who use the tunnels during rush hour are Military and don’t have a say when they use the roads? This is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard! A toll so we can decide how much to charge for a toll? What the hell kind of logic is that?

  7. I personally think in congested urban areas where adding additional NETWORK capacity is cost prohibitive that NOT having dynamic tolls is dumb.

    At LEAST with dynamic tolls – you DO give people an additional choice.

    As Reed pointed out – there already is a cost to making an appointment during rush hour. Why not have the option of making that appointment – reliably?

    the other thing is – that we calculate the “costs” of congestion but do we calculate actually paying to buy it down?

    why do we believe that we should reduce the cost of congestion by adding more “free” roads that don’t cost us anything?

    if congestion costs you X dollars, are you not willing to pay 1/2 X dollars to reduce it by half or more?

  8. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    LOUSY IDEA. Let’s just screw the folks who need to cross at a specific time of day because we didn’t have the foresight to see this comming years ago.

    My father used to commute between VB (where we lived) to Williamsburg (where he worked). He used to get on the bridge, turn off the engine, get out of the car and tailgate with the other people waiting for traffic to move. He didn’t complain…instead, we moved to the burg.

    AND this IDIOTIC plan does nothing for the gridlock on 64 from New Kent to the tunnel. Or are we going to start robbing people who travel that stretch as well? (ATTENTION: Once you get PAST New Kent, get on 60 and 243 through N. N.)
    OH MY GAWD!!! Larry had it right!

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Yes, there is a bit of “Adding Insult to Injury” in the toll plan.

      The implication behind the plan as it’s described by its proponents in the above article is that traffic congestion is the drivers fault instead of the failure of government officials to plan and build an adequate transportation infrastructure. Instead these officials have let these problems fester for years, doing great harm to their constituents, then they propose to solve the problem they’ve created by taxing the people they’ve been mistreating for years.

  9. This is a great idea! It should include a free HOV3 provision to promote carpooling. This will also help promote more reliable transit options in the Hampton Roads area.

    This would be a good idea for I-66 inside the beltway.

  10. I’m perplexed.

    People think that no matter where they choose to travel or how far or how much the infrastructure costs – that effect, they should not have to pay more for it than their gas tax provides.

    All infrastructure is not the same. some of it is damned expensive and even more so if more of it has to be built to handle peak hour traffic.

    So a simple question – why don’t we make the CBBT free?

    seriously. how about a “pro” argument for making it free.

    if we made it free would more people move to the Eastern Shore then demand more bridge/tunnel when it became congested?

    so serious question. make a strong argument for taking the tolls off the CBBT and letting other motorists – like those going from VB to Williamsburg have some of their gas taxes go to pay for a “free” CBBT.

    how about it?

  11. shaunalex Avatar

    I’m all for tolls and taxes for user-pay and for behavior mod reasons. I don’t think this is a good location for it since there really are no alternatives to using bridges to cross water. It’s not like you can get off the hwy on parallel Route 1, or not use the new 495 HOT lanes. People in the region and vacationers on weekends have no local alternative road to choose from.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Excellent point.

  12. re: no alternatives. “free alternatives”?

    isn’t this like saying cars or food is too expensive ?

    you can’t build new bridges or tunnels from the current revenues.


    so what policy would we advocate for to build more bridges and tunnels?

    there is no money tree in Richmond…. and the folks that live in the rest of virginia are not going to donate their road money… so what’s the solution?

    we just had a big tax increase and I’m quite sure HR and locale are going to get their fair share of it but you’re still going to be short a bunch of money if you want to build more infrastructure.

    is an alternative to that – to charge tolls and use dynamic pricing to manage congestion and at the same time build a kitty for more infrastructure?

    other solutions?

  13. Having read the proposal and comments there are several points that I think need to be made.

    1. Tolls or “user fees” (as some like to sugar coat it) would be effective in altering driver behavior. The question is what class of driver is being impacted. Very few people are as naive about traffic conditions as the hypothetical retired sailor presented.
    2. Many of the users of the HRBT and MMMBT are captive users, since the Navy refuses to allow flexible working hours and instead releases huge quantities of commuters at one time.
    3. It has always amazed me how many people in this area refuse to live in the same locality as their place of employment. Even more head-scratching are those that live across a water crossing from their place of employment then complain about their commute.
    4. If the money wouldn’t be used to finance expansion of the HRBT or MMMBT, what would it be used for?
    5. In the draft EIS put out for the HRBT, the “managed lane” alternative considered tolling the crossing, but tolls are not a forgone conclusion as of now unless you know something I don’t.
    6. While several of the projects listed are north of the 10-figure mark, none of them would account for $3 billion by itself.

  14. Let me say – a pause here – that I very much appreciate the reasoned and polite discussions that take place on BR.

    now back to our regular program:

    I think Hokie pretty much nailed it.

    by the way, I know personally of Navy bases that DO offer flexible work hours but perhaps shipyard work is not or cannot be but I’m like Hokie – why would you choose to live in a situation that left you vulnerable to commuting problems?

    Further – if the hours are not flexible – what happened to car pools and vans and buses?

    I’ve driven down that way as well as in NoVa and my impression was that almost no one drives HOV in Hampton and area..

    I just don’t see how you’re going to go forward without managed tolls and tolls to build a kitty for additional infrastructure. I’m pretty sure the money is not going to come from the state in quantities huge enough to satisfy.

    I expect Darrell to weigh in soon, here… and it won’t be a love fest.


  15. Darrell Avatar

    Sorry Im late….:)

    This toll business just gives more kids a reason to move out to better cities because the RoVa style wages aren’t going to cut it.

    Business here is hands on monitoring. There are no flex shifts, telecommute or any other modern employment conveniences. Workers do not have options only SOPs strictly enforced by management.

    Now let’s talk about the Navy. Everyone musters on the dot. And they leave on another dot. Before that everyone is doing the PT shuffle, and afterward they do the General Military Training before heading home. Whether you have work to do, or don’t isn’t the issue. YOU WILL BE ABOARD UNTIL LIBERTY CALL!

    Then there is the port. All the truckers show up in the morning, run containers around all day and go home in the evening. We are definitely not talking Ohio style steel hauling here. There is no such thing as 24/7 in the port business.

    Why did the worker cross the bridge? It’s more than just getting to the other side. Jobs are fickle here. You work a year and then it’s VEC time. Then you find another job, but across the bridge. With a congestion tax, the unintended winner could very well be Richmond. I knew several people that worked up there, shared a week day apartment, and still got better wages than slaving back and forth across the bridges.

    This is the reality that government planners don’t want to face. They would rather throw money at light rail and third crossings, or fine workers for trying to get to work. I once read minutes of a planning meeting on I-64 construction zones. One of the members outright claimed that blocking the road to one lane was a good thing because citizens would push for higher taxes. Guess they never learned that our roads here eventually lead to Dallas, Atlanta, or Seattle.

  16. thanks for “splaining” Darrell. So the Navy runs on a schedule and there is no flex-time and people switch jobs and end up on a different side of the river than they started out – sounds like the NoVa beltway scramble…..

    I’ve driven down your way a few times and what I’ve noticed is that the HOV lanes are very lightly used – though I admit I have not been there early in the morning when sailors would be on their way to muster.

    given the money situation – what do you think needs to be done in terms of infrastructure and how it would be paid for?

    do you consider this to be a State priority to invest state money in the HR area or should the Navy pay or tolls or regional taxes or what?

  17. accurate Avatar

    Just my two cents worth – what a STUPID idea. Yes, I understand it (sort of) but YES, it stinks of social engineering which rubs me the wrong way times ten. I read this posting 3 times looking for the answer to what will they do with the money (kudos to Hokie) and I sill don’t know, do you?

    With a son-in-law who is in the service (but not in your area – he’s in the Army), in his unit there is no flex time. You show up when you’re assigned to show up and you leave (unless told otherwise) when you’re scheduled to leave.

    Sounds to me (someone is not real familiar with your area) that if you want to free up some congestion, you build a new toll road (or bridge, whatever it is) and those who want to pay and flow freely do. Those who don’t continue to use the older, slower roads. I’ve always objected to the idea that we suddenly toll old roads/routes that were free. From reading it sounds like folks will pay (unless you are traveling at 2AM) if you need to get from point A to point B and the only routes lead over this/these roads.

    In Oregon they are having a fight over a new interstate bridge that goes from Oregon to Washington (the north edge of Portland is on the border of Washington with a river separating the two states). There was an old bridge, that is still in use. I remember as a kid that there was a toll to use the bridge (the next place to cross from state to state was about 200 miles east). The toll was 25 cents as I recall (this is back in the 60’s) and the toll was removed when the cost of the bridge was re-couped, the bridge has been open and free ever since. Since that point in time, they have built another bridge, it’s about 8 miles east of the old bridge and it has been free since it’s opening; both bridges get LOTS of traffic every day, although I think the old bridge still sees the bulk of traffic. The old bridge is … old, and due to age and use, there has been talk for almost 10 years about replacing it. The two sticking points regarding the new bridge have been that they want to make it a permanent toll (which rubs folks in that part of the nation the wrong way) and add light rail, which is ANOTHER real sore spot in that area of the country. People have pointed out, that lots of people would just use the ‘other’ bridge, to which one possible solution was to toll that too – wanna guess how that suggestion was recieved??

    Bottom line in my book – congestive toll prices is for the birds. If I were there, I’d be fighting it tooth and nail.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      The Hampton Road Government has learned lessons from Maryland’s Governor O’Malley. His is a lesson on how to engineer a massive toll increase on users of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to pay for his social agenda.
      The bridge is the single lifeline for worker traveling between the Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the most of the nearby rest of the state, and inter-state travelers as well. Thus it gave the governor huge leverage. One he could not resist. So he turned the bridge and his citizens into cash cows for doing nothing more than trying to earn a living, or travel thought his state.

      Big bridges are the perfect trap and cover for this behavior, and highly coercive. There is only one way to get across the bay here. And, since the bridge with its earlier lower toll paid for itself, the toll hike is used to pay for the governor’s pet projects. So, in fact, the governor loves congestion. Its a cover to fund his agenda, another hidden way to tax and spend.

      In Hampton Roads it appears even worst. Here local politicians also appear on a mission to reform the behavior of their own constituents, folks who are only trying to earn a living, in many cases by trying serve their country.

      Consider this statement: “The purpose of the tolls would not be to pay for new construction nor to raise money for other purposes … the executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation told the CTB. “The concept is simply to change behavior … (saying) … that modest tolls from $.50 to $1.50 per trip would be sufficient to induce travelers to shift their trips to less-congested times of day, although the tolls could run higher if that’s what it took to ameliorate congestion. “The idea is to utilize the capacity more effectively.” … The toll could virtually eliminate congestion by changing the behavior of just 10% of drivers … he gave the example of a retired U.S. Navy officer who books a medical appointment at 8:00 a.m. when he could easily wait until later in the morning …”

      The shallow arrogance of these pronouncements are breathtaking. And also extremely misleading on their face. Only a fool would believe that these tolls of 50 cents to $1.50 are sufficient to change behavior. Or that they are not intended to raise money off folks who can easily avoid the toll.

      In fact these tolls appear to be targeted at the government’s most vulnerable citizens. Those who can’t avoid the tolls and those who suffer most from the government’s long term and chronic failure to fix the congestion. So now instead of fixing the problem the government caused, it wants to tax those who suffer for it.

      At base these are acts of government arrogance that feeds of its citizens. Its an old game that can too easily pop to the surface. Tea was dumped into Boston’s Harbor for less.

      1. re: ” His is a lesson on how to engineer a massive toll increase on users of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to pay for his social agenda.”

        Good GOD Reed!

        what exactly is his “social agenda” ?

        this is where I get the idea that you boys are on “tilt”.

        congestion pricing for roads works EXACTLY like congestion pricing for Airlines or Rock Concerts.

        do you think Airlines and Rock Concert promoters have “social agendas”?

        trying to have roads function MORE like a free market, in my mind, is a rational way to allocate scarce resources – the very same way we do gasoline or kumquats!

        why is this bad?

  18. re: how to pay in advance for a new toll bridge/tunnel?

    how do you do that?

    re: “free roads”

    nope. there are three cost components: 1. initial construction, 2. maintenance,, repair and 3. operations

    2 and 3 are many times multiples for bridges and tunnels than roads.

    re: congestion pricing

    if you have no real options for expanding capacity at all or in the near term – what is the best way to allocate capacity ?

    right now.. it’s any/all who come whenever they want which results in tremendous backups. Now how does a sailor get to muster on time if he/she is caught in a one or two hour backup? How does that work?

    isn’t there a real cost in time and money to both the sailor and the Navy when this happens?

    congestion tolls are the least evil of nothing but bad choices – in my view.

    someone tell me a better option when you just don’t have the capacity and any chance of getting additional anytime soon….

  19. accurate Avatar

    I can think of several things, although I don’t know all particulars of the area or state government but the following comes to mind.

    Sell bonds to get the project (new bridge for example) started, that and federal goverment funds/matching funds. Once the project is up and running (collecting tolls) you pay off the bonds and once paid off, use the future revenues to do maintenance, etc.

    Second, if (and I can see state and local government messing this up BIG TIME) a private ferry company (assuming we are talking a bridge) were to come in? There are a few places in Oregon and a few down here in Texas that have ferries. Surprisingly fast (faster than I expected and certainly faster than congestion), I also found them a nice respite from the road, a bit of a force break.

    But there again, this is one of the reasons I don’t usually stick my nose into local Virginia issues. I don’t know exactly where you are talking about and I don’t know your government very well.

  20. Wow, what a hostile reception to the tolling idea! Here’s the thing — there are no painless solutions to the problem posed by the bridge-tunnel congestion. It would cost literally billions of dollars to add extra lanes to the bridge-tunnels and alleviate the backup. Billions. This is super-expensive infrastructure.

    Now, tell me, where is the money coming from? Building more bridge-tunnel capacity will require floating bonds, which would be paid off with… tolls. Here’s the trick. These tolls would be significantly higher than the congestion tolls — high enough to recoup the cost billion-dollar construction cost — and they would never go down to zero. At least the congestion-tolling idea would allow the bridge-tunnel to be toll-free 16 or so hours out of the day.

    The other alternative is to do nothing at all. Nobody likes option that either. Congestion has a price, too.

    I understand the fact that nobody likes to pay a toll to use a facility they are accustomed to using for free. But Hampton Roads is a victim of its geography. Give me a better way to deal with the situation — other than getting “someone else” to pay for it.

    1. With all due respect Mr. Bacon, I understand the market influence putting congestion tolls on the roadway can have. The problem is that this is a facility that needs to be expanded or at the very least rebuilt. The original tube of the tunnel was built in 1957 with the other added in 1976. Bridges and tunnels generally have a service life of 50 years though it has become practice to squeeze some extra years out of them though 75 is generally considered the maximum. Doing the math, those 75 years will be up in 2032. Note: this is the minimum to maintain current conditions. If no expansion is done by this time. The HRBT could be reduced to a 2-lane facility.

      This project or the alternate Third/Patriot’s Crossing is consistently ranked the #1 priority by the HRTPO. No one is suggesting we get someone else to pay for this expansion, but the citizens of Hampton Roads would like to remind you that they pay into the Transportation Trust Fund at the same rate as those in Richmond and come July at a higher rate.

      1. everyone pays into the transportation trust fund, right? Does one place in Va merit other areas giving up their allocation instead to go to the other area?

        the receiving areas seem to believe this but I can assure you than the donor areas do not.

        so it’s back to Jim Bacon’s question. what do you want to do about it?

        I suspect that the tunnels were originally built by the rest of Va kicking in extra money since they are so expensive but seriously what – proposal would we put forth to pay for replacing the old tunnels and building new ones?

        We built the CBBT with the idea that we’d float bonds and pay them back from tolls.

        why is that a wrong solution?

        would we have the CBBT if we did not have tolls?

    2. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Jim, tolls at base are a crutch for government failure. That is where we are headed now, I fear. To a place where crutches can easily be turned into very counter productive tools. Once on that slippery slope, citizens, their money, habits, and livelihoods can easily become tools by which government can to cover up its own failure to act and make hard decisions as well. Yet another way for some folks to manipulate the folks they’re supposed to serve.

  21. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    The more one reads about tolls, the more concerned one becomes about how tolls can be misused to unduly extend government power, including its taxing power, without the consent or informed knowledge of the governed.

    It seems now that more and more of our lives are being monitored and regulated by government. Every year our government imposes more incentives to encourage and reward how we behave and penalties to restrict or prevent behavior that is otherwise completely legal. In effect government is doping us into certain addictive habits while making other quasi illegal. And every year devising ever more insidious ways to accomplish its goals.

    Thus, more and more of our actions in our daily lives trigger a government tax, or a government subsidy, which in turn feeds ever more government intrusion into our lives and livelihoods. Controlling what roads and bridges we drive, where we live, what we can eat, what we can weigh, what doctor we can see and what our doctor will prescribe for our health, on and on.

    Where does it all this government control and regulation end?

  22. Reed.. tolls pay for infrastructure. Most of the Northeast has tolls on it’s roads. Pennsylvania has an east/west corridor that it would not have without tolls. We have the CBBT that we’d not have if we did not have tolls.

    How in the world do you see that as a govt “failure”?

    how about we have the private sector in charge of roads and tolls?

    would you think still blame the govt?

    this is nutty guy.

  23. re: govt is “incentivizing” and “de-incentivizing” behaviors.

    friendly amendment:

    govt is “incentivizing” and “de-incentivizing” behaviors – that impose costs on everyone.

    a simple example: you have a business that benefits you but you dump pollution – and that effects others – so the govt in it’s role of representing ALL property owners – DOES step in convince the polluter that he is harming other property owners in his activities even if they benefit him.

    I would assert that this is not some ‘evil”, monolithic, govt doing business by FIAT – but in fact govt that is elected and does attempt (admittedly in dysfunctional ways sometimes) to essentially discourage behaviors that impose costs on others.

    You are clearly entitled to activities on your own property as long as they do not endanger or impose costs on others.

    but if you leave your property and “use” public infrastructure – then you are then using something that does not belong to you – and yes, it comes with regulations – the same as if you went into a privately operated store that says (for instance: “no shirt, no shoes, no service” or the much more common one that is essentially unwritten but totally expected of you and that is when you check out – you get in line – you do not get to go first.

    people who break in line tend to get caught up in kerfuffles so the vast majority of our society mostly gets in line at McDonalds and if you break line, there are consequences because you are SHARING a scarce resources with others and you are not entitled to more than others.

    that’s not just govt “imposing” something on you – that’s a pragmatic acceptance by everyone that sometimes there are more people than there are facilities to serve them – without waits.

    so what did WalMart do about that? Well… what they did was “incentivize” those with 20 items or less by giving them “express” check-outs.

    Now, my question is this : isn’t this, in effect, similar to what govt is attempting to do by offering express lanes and dynamic tolling?

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