Fewer than one-quarter of Hampton Roads residents support the state's deal with a private company to reimpose tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, according to a new poll.
Only 23.4 percent of those surveyed expressed support for the tunnel deal. Nearly half of the respondents, 47.4 percent, agreed that the two Elizabeth River crossings need to be expanded but said the work should be paid for in some other way, and 19.7 percent opposed the project altogether.
The findings are from the fourth annual "Life in Hampton Roads" survey conducted by the Social Science Research Center at Old Dominion University.
The state's $2 billion deal to expand the Midtown Tunnel and refurbish the Downtown Tunnel calls for tolls to be imposed beginning Feb. 1, starting at $1.84 each way for passenger vehicles at peak hours. The tolls are set to stay in place, with annual increases for inflation, for 58 years.
Work on the project is proceeding even as a group of residents fights the plan in court. A Portsmouth judge ruled in May that the tolls are unconstitutional, prompting an appeal by Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration and its private partner. The state Supreme Court heard arguments on the appeal Wednesday.
Jesse Richman, director of ODU's research center, said the poll results indicate that residents are conflicted: A majority agree that the tunnels' capacity needs to be expanded, but many have other ideas about how the work should be paid for.
"Some of this is opposition not to tolls per se, but to the structure of this contract," he said.
Respondents who said the project should be funded some other way were invited to suggest ideas, and many did. One of the most popular was an increase in the gas tax. Other respondents said they don't object to tolls on principle but are suspicious of tolls imposed by a private company.
"I don't trust private funding of public infrastructure," one said. "Government should be responsible."
The results reflect an unsettled public mood, Richman said: "There's kind of a mile-wide consensus that we need to do something to improve transportation in Virginia. The challenge always gets to be when you start talking about exactly how you're going to pay for it."
Further illustrating that ambivalence, more than 4 out of 5 respondents said they are at least somewhat concerned about traffic congestion in Hampton Roads. But 50.6 percent said they would be less likely to use a bridge-tunnel if a toll is imposed on it. That's up from 45.4 percent in last year's survey.
The annual ODU survey measures attitudes on a wide array of topics. Pollsters interviewed a random sample of 812 residents between May 28 and July 12. The maximum margin of error is 5.3 percent.
Bill Sizemore, 757-446-2276, email@example.com