- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Finding reasons traffic in Hampton Roads can be such a nightmare isn’t a difficult task.

The region is the state’s second most populous, many roads lack the capacity to handle peak traffic flows, and a system of tunnels and bridges necessitated by numerous waterways creates severe chokepoints.

On top of that, about 65 percent of workers don’t live in the city they work in, public transit isn’t a viable option for most people, and even secondary roads can be inundated by tractor-trailers hauling goods to and from ports.

Although 2013 census figures show Hampton Roads had the state’s fourth longest average commute - 24 minutes - behind northern Virginia, Charlottesville and Richmond, the region has the second worst congestion, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Only congestion in the more populous northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington - among the nation’s most severe - is worse.

The problem isn’t likely to get any better on its own. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service projects the population in Hampton Roads to grow by about 300,000, to nearly 2 million people, by 2040. Large growth is also projected for northern Virginia and the Richmond areas during that same time, indicating that the need and competition for road projects won’t wane.

Here are a few ways state and local planners are looking to ease congestion in Hampton Roads.

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FUNDING: The biggest obstacle to reducing congestion is getting projects funded to expand capacity and eliminate traffic bottlenecks. The wish list for projects across the state is simply too large. To focus on the state’s two most congested areas, northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, state lawmakers in 2013 approved allowing a portion of sales tax collected in those areas to fund transportation projects there.

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LIGHT RAIL: The light rail line known as the Tide was originally envisioned as running parallel to traffic-plagued Interstate 264 from downtown Norfolk to the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, which is the state’s most populous city. Although Virginia Beach leaders scoffed at the idea at the time, Norfolk moved forward with the project - ultimately opening a 7.4 mile line that goes from downtown Norfolk to its border with Virginia Beach in 2011. But now Virginia Beach is looking to expand the line about 3 miles to a part of the city known as Town Center, which would provide Norfolk residents with a commercial destination outside of downtown and create additional points for Virginia Beach commuters to get on the line. Norfolk also wants to extend the line from downtown to Naval Station Norfolk, which is the world’s largest naval base and a major employer.

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TUNNEL TOLLS: Some of the worst backups in Hampton Roads occur at the Midtown and Downtown tunnels that go under the Elizabeth River, connecting Portsmouth and Norfolk. Work is under way on new tunnels to add capacity at each crossing. The projects are being financed with tolls on the existing tunnels that will continue to rise even once the new tunnels are open. The tunnels are one of the key routes truck drivers take to and from the area’s port terminals. Transportation officials believe if there’s ever to be a third crossing between the Peninsula and southside Hampton Roads to supplement the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, it will likely require additional tolls.

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URBAN PLANNING: In recent years, planners in Hampton Roads have put an emphasis on creating walkable communities that reduce the need for people to use their cars. Norfolk’s downtown has added hundreds of residential units and more are on the way. In Virginia Beach, a city with a largely suburban character, planners are looking to build walkable communities near future light rail stations to guide development. In suburban Chesapeake, Dollar Tree plans to build a high-density residential, retail and commercial development next to its headquarters similar to Virginia Beach’s Town Center.

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