To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Traffic surges to Gilmerton, High-Rise after tunnel tolls


By Dave Forster, February 14, 2014

The high rise bridge along Interstate 64 in Chesapeake on Oct. 18, 2005 from the air. <span class='credit'>(L. Todd Spencer | The Virginian-Pilot)</span>

The high rise bridge along Interstate 64 in Chesapeake on Oct. 18, 2005 from the air.

A surge in traffic to the High-Rise Bridge since tolls started on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels has pushed that crossing to its capacity during morning and afternoon rush hours.

That was among the takeaways from the broadest analysis yet of how the tolls have shifted driving patterns in the region. Another: People are more likely to avoid the tunnels during nonpeak times, when the tolls are lower but when motorists likely aren't rushing to or from work and can dawdle on a detour.

The drop in tunnel traffic outside the hours of 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. is so great - 31 percent at the Downtown and 21 percent at the Midtown - that it troubled Dwight Farmer, director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, which did the study.

Farmer, echoing concerns that critics of the tolls have voiced for years, said those figures suggest regional commerce could suffer during nonpeak hours as the tunnel fees climb higher and, instead of going around, people stop making trips altogether.

The tolls started Feb. 1 as part of $2.1 billion public-private deal to build a second Midtown tube, extend a freeway in Portsmouth, renovate the old tunnels and privately operate and maintain the roads until 2070. The E-ZPass fee for passenger vehicles is $1 from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.

The off-peak rate is 75 cents. Both rates are to rise by 25 cents each of the next two years before jumping to $1.84 peak and $1.59 off-peak when the new tunnel is finished in 2016.

The traffic analysis looked at data collected by automated counters at the roads on Jan. 14-16 and Feb. 4-6. Each period ran from Tuesday to Thursday.

During peak periods, the drops in traffic at the tunnels ranged from 10 percent in the morning at the Midtown, to 20 percent in the afternoon at the Downtown. Conversely, traffic spiked a combined 31 percent at the Gilmerton Bridge on Military Highway and 8 percent at the High-Rise Bridge on Interstate 64 during those times.

Keith Nichols, the senior transportation engineer who authored the report, said staffers did not expect to see such a large increase at the Gilmerton. It nonetheless could accommodate still more traffic, he said.

The crossing saw its average daily traffic rise to 30,000 vehicles, versus 23,000 before tolling at the tunnels.

The bigger worry was at the High-Rise, which saw traffic counts rise to 93,000 a day after tolling, versus 81,000 before.

The analysis did not include speed data, which would quantify how much worse congestion has become, but Nichols said he's heard anecdotally that rush-hour backups have worsened.

"Adding 8 percent of traffic - that's really pushing it to capacity," he said.

Speed data will be part of a more comprehensive study that will be done later this year. That analysis will also look at the impact on secondary roads and other crossings, such as the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, and include recommendations on how intersections might be improved to handle greater demand.

Nichols said driving patterns will continue to shift, but he predicted that future movements will be more like ripples after a big splash.

"We really think it'll be a couple months before we hit that equilibrium," he said.