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Virginia Judge Rules Tolls Unconstitutional


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Back in 1958, drivers started to pay pesky tolls on the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike until construction bonds were paid off in 1992. Those charges are long gone from Interstate 95, but tolls and bad memories are back in the news.

The question: Are tolls set by private managers of public roads constitutional?

A Portsmouth judge says no. His ruling turned some of the state's prized public-private transportation projects on their heads, and Virginia could be stuck with $3.5 billion in unexpected expenses.

If left standing, the May ruling by Portsmouth Circuit Judge James A. Cales Jr. regarding two tunnel projects in Hampton Roads will be a huge blow to the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who's tapped the 1995 Public Private Transportation Act to push several big road projects. That includes a new toll road from Petersburg to Suffolk and enhancing parts of Interstate 495 near Washington.

Cales decided that only the state — and not private companies — can set taxes, and that's what tolls are. His decision was cheered by commuters in Hampton Roads, who would have had to pay hundreds of dollars in tolls that were eliminated years before.

Others see the decision as a way to bring some rationality to the Public Private Transportation Act, which was intended to supplement road construction in cash-strapped Virginia but morphed into a major way of handling transportation.

"This would create a mess, but it also would halt Virginia's drift into over-reliance on the PPTA, which is a flawed statute that has evolved into something far beyond the General Assembly's original intent," says Trip Pollard, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

State officials weren't pleased with the decision. "This is not consistent with almost 240 years of building toll facilities in the commonwealth of Virginia," Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton told the House Appropriations Committee on June 17.

An appeal against Cales' ruling is coming, with the Virginia Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case this summer. If the ruling stands, the state would have to redo contracts on its public-private projects and assume as much as $3.5 billion for construction that already has taken place, along with other expenses, including as much as $700 million for the plans involving the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels connecting Portsmouth and Norfolk.

Locally, it would affect the Pocahontas Parkway, a financially troubled toll road southeast of Richmond. It's operated by Australia's Transurban, which is trying to sell the highway.

But what about tolls on the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway? They're set by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a public entity established in 1966.

The RMA isn't sure what the impact will be, spokeswoman Linda McElroy says: "We just don't know yet."


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