By Dave Forster, February 14, 2014
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
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
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
"We really think it'll be a couple months before we hit that equilibrium," he said.