Not much of a choice

Published 12:01 pm Saturday, January 11, 2014

If you’re unhappy about the prospect of paying tolls to cross the Elizabeth River beginning Feb. 1, get in line. Then again, if you’re unhappy about the tolls, you’re probably used to being in line, as you’ve likely spent much of your life waiting in traffic to get through one of the Hampton Roads tunnels that are set to be tolled starting next month.

Just as there’s no easy way to avoid Tidewater traffic in general, there’s no easy way to avoid the tolls that were set through an agreement between the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell and a consortium of private companies operating as Elizabeth River Crossings.

The governor ignored the pleas of commuters who would pay nearly $1,000 a year for peak-time travel through either the Downtown or Midtown tunnels.

The legislature then failed to find a way to derail the deal that had cut them out of the toll-setting process through the use of the Public-Private Transportation Act. And the Virginia Supreme Court sealed Tidewater’s 58-year enslavement to tolls collected on behalf of a private company by ruling that those tolls do not represent a tax on commuters, since drivers can opt to avoid the tolls by navigating a crowded 17-mile detour that should add no more than an hour to each trip.

Tidewater Against Unfair Tolls — the citizens’ group that has fought the imposition of tolls on both tunnels and on the Martin Luther King Extension as a way to pay for construction of a new tube at the Midtown Tunnel — has asked the court for a rehearing, but their chances of getting it are slim, based on the court’s history. And Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s governor-elect, has promised he’s working on a plan to reduce the tolls. But it’s hard to imagine a new deal ERC would accept, considering that its existing one gives the company all the risk of a casino operator who’s paid the gambling commission to rig the machines in his favor.

So where does all this leave Tidewater commuters who cross the river each day? Stuck. Maybe not stuck in traffic (though it will be years before the tunnel addition does anything to alleviate the congestion). But stuck with tolls, at least.

Many of those in Western Tidewater who make the trip across the river to work each day will avoid Portsmouth and head for the High-Rise Bridge. For those who opt to continue through one of the tunnels, though, the Virginia Department of Transportation has an ironic bit of consumer advice: Save money by getting an E-ZPass transponder and opening a prepaid account.

Those who use the tolled roads without E-ZPass will receive bills at their home address for the toll amount, plus a processing fee of up to $3.18 per crossing. E-ZPass users will pay only the regular toll rate of $1.59 (off-peak) or $1.84 (peak), plus a 50-cent service charge each month.

Buy one by the end of the day today, and you’ll get five free trips. What more could you want?