Monday, June 23, 2003

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) — A $15 billion road-building plan approved by southeastern Virginia leaders abandons the idea of placing a toll on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and instead relies on an 11-cent increase in the gasoline tax and four other tolls.

However, federal highway officials have warned that they might reject large chunks of the proposal because state leaders have not approved, nor even considered, a gasoline-tax increase and some of the tolls.

The 2026 regional transportation plan approved last week includes widening Interstate 64 on the peninsula as well as dozens of other smaller road improvements.

Without a tax increase or new tolls, the region can expect to get only $5 billion for road construction in the next 23 years, said Dwight Farmer, the deputy executive director for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

Regional leaders say that is far from enough to meet basic needs. But the Federal Highway Administration has said any proposal that relies on tolls and a gas-tax increase would be unacceptable because there’s no reason to believe that state leaders would approve those sources of money.

“The only way for it to get done is for the legislature to provide money or for the legislature to provide a revenue arrangement to pay for the projects,” said Newport News Mayor Joe Frank.

Preliminary estimates for the tolls are: $1.50 for widening the Midtown Tunnel and for construction of a bridge-tunnel across the harbor from Newport News to Norfolk, $1.40 for upgrading Route 460 in Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, and 75 cents for construction of the Southeastern Parkway in Virginia Beach.

For tolls to even be included in the planning document, the Virginia Department of Transportation must agree to them, the federal government has said. And for a tax increase to be included in the plan, the region must provide documentation that the General Assembly is considering a gasoline-tax increase.

But the General Assembly is not considering an 11-cent gasoline tax increase, and it has rejected smaller gas-tax increases in the past two years.

If the tolls and tax are rejected, then some or all of the largest projects would be removed from the plan.

Congress requires the region to update the 23-year plan every three years. Not meeting the federal government’s end-of-the-year deadline could result in the loss of some federal road construction money.

Regional leaders had discussed placing tolls on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to raise money for other construction projects. Hampton officials objected, saying tolls shouldn’t be placed on the bridge-tunnel unless the money went to widening it.

Widening the tunnel is not part of the 2026 plan, but the Metropolitan Planning Organization did agree last week to study congestion and the possibility of tolls on the tunnel.

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