March 25--That was a good show Gov. Terry McAuliffe headlined this week, as he criticized the state's private partner managing the tolls at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels. The guv even brought along Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne and Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk to get in their licks, too.
"I am sick and tired of these companies coming in here and abusing our citizens. ... It outrages me," McAuliffe said at the news conference at Portsmouth City Hall. He excoriated the consortium that makes up Elizabeth River Crossings, a week after The Pilot ran an article on three low-income women who have racked up debts from tunnel tolls as high as $18,000.
"I was shocked" reading about what had occurred, said Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The response from ERC, which consists of the firms Skanska and Macquarie? A yawn, at least at first.
By Thursday, Layne said, ERC hadn't replied to a scathing March 17 letter he'd sent to Gregory Woodsmall, its chief executive officer, regarding additional toll charges. Layne's letter had also cited legislation passed in the 2016 General Assembly session that capped penalties and interest for convicted, first-time toll violators at $2,200.
A Skanska official, by email, told me Friday that consortium officials take the complaints by McAuliffe and Layne "very seriously and are working to resolve the issues that have been highlighted here."
"We look forward to making this situation right in the weeks ahead," said Bill Horwitz, Skanska senior vice president. He also said they would continue to work with a small number of drivers with unpaid tolls and fees.
The statement lacked specifics. Nor did I expect much in the way of concessions.
See, the private toll operator holds all the cards here. The contract signed by the administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell gave ERC all the power -- and local residents all the pain.
So I wasn't impressed by the guv's chest-thumping and braying in front of the cameras. State legislators, Portsmouth City Council members and Norfolk's mayor, to name a few, attended Thursday. The array of elected leaders indicated a unified front, in an event long on hope.
Yet the news conference revealed, again, how impotent the state is. Recent concessions by ERC merely nibble around the edges, while not getting to the heart of a one-sided contract.
The 58-year agreement, through 2070, allows ERC to produce an average annual profit of 13.5 percent. Toll rates can rise by at least 3.5 percent every year. ERC also has a right to compensation if the state builds another road that siphons traffic from the tunnels.
I know, I know: State officials are trying to make it tougher for ERC to punish debtors with vehicle registration holds, as my colleague Ana Ley reported Friday. ERC has used that tool to crack down on folks who don't pay on time.
The latest development is not a minor thing for people choosing between paying toll bills and say, food, electricity or heat.
ERC is settling "out of court at amounts far greater than the limits set in the agreement we made in 2015 to eliminate tolling on the MLK Freeway Extension and in 2016 legislation," the governor said in a statement.
Jones, the Suffolk delegate, backs the guv's latest proposal. It's a budget amendment that will be taken up in April at the Assembly.
The legislative moves, however, aren't retroactive and won't help the women The Pilot wrote about.
McAuliffe acknowledged the state's predicament Thursday. The guv noted Virginia has "very limited options" because of the contract with ERC.
He and Layne are using the bully pulpit. They're applying moral suasion, as much as possible.
Sadly, that tactic won't change the situation much for people who use the Norfolk-Portsmouth tunnels.
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