After more than a year of legal wrangling over the Downtown and Midtown Tunnel project—it’s settled.
Tolls are not taxes, but instead, user fees, and are constitutional, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The justices cite several reasons in their 55-page brief, released Thursday.
One of them is that drivers are not forced by the government to pay tolls or drive through the tunnels.
The brief cites the Gilmerton Bridge and the High-Rise Bridge as several free alternatives available for drivers to avoid the tolls.
Justices also feel the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, along with the MLK Expressway, make up one single transportation project, and since all the tolls collected will stay within that project, they are not a taxes.
“Tolling is going to be coming, we know that for sure, February 1st of 2014,” said Elizabeth River Crossings Spokeswoman Leila Rice.
Rice says construction has continued uninterrupted, while the legal battle played out in court.
Workers were seen today building the approach ramp to the new Midtown tube.
“I think there is no question that this project is necessary and needed in Hampton Roads,” said Rice.
The big question now is–how many other projects are necessary and needed in Hampton Roads–and will tolls be used to fund those as well?
“For major transportation projects, those costing billions of dollars, they will have to include not only state investment, but other types of revenue sources, and tolls are one of those sources,” said Aubrey Layne, the Hampton Roads representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
Layne says tolling has already been discussed at the regional level for projects like the I-64 widening on the Peninsula, and the building of the future Patriot’s Crossing tunnel.
Now with this Supreme Court decision, it’s all considered legal.
“So what this allows us to do is use the Public Private Transportation Act. It’s not meant for every project, but for major projects where they would not be built otherwise, it gives us an opportunity to bring them to fruition,” said Layne.
For those that own businesses in Portsmouth…that explanation is still not comforting.
Horace McClenny cuts hair each day in this barbershop in the heart of Downtown Portsmouth. He’s worried if his customers have to pay to get there, they might go somewhere else.
“Business is already hurting down here and with the added tolls and all of that I don’t think it is going to be a successful venture for this area,” he says.
Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright agrees. He says the tolls are more like an unfair tax.
“It is very disturbing and disheartening. From an economic development impact, it is going to be devastating here in Portsmouth,” he says.