FOLLOW-UP NEWS: Road woes draw Peninsula, South Hampton Roads closer


The amazing four-lane high-rise bridge?

Transportation meetings last week produced some compelling new road possibilities and triggered some shifting subplots in the General Assembly's quest to smooth Hampton Roads traffic.

Ratcheting up road discussion has also drawn new ideas out of familiar faces. Philip Shucet started studying Hampton Roads' transportation network as a private consultant in the mid-1990s and was eventually tapped to turn around the Virginia Department of Transportation as a reform-minded commissioner.

Now back in the private sector, Shucet came to a gathering of Hampton Roads lawmakers in Suffolk last week and tossed out some innovative concepts.

The first was that a lofty four-lane bridge could connect the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads, which would double the traffic on the crossing while simultaneously allaying fears that expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel would cut into beachfront neighborhoods in Norfolk.

"I'm not suggesting that the bridge is the best answer for the HRBT," Shucet said. "I'm only suggesting that a bridge is a concept that should be studied as a reasonable option."

Shucet said the bottom of the bridge would have to be 200 feet above the water, so aircraft carriers and container ships could pass below. He insisted that any plan would have to be meticulously reviewed by Navy and state security experts to make sure the span didn't pose a threat to the locally based Navy fleet.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is laying the groundwork for a special legislative session on transportation, and local lawmakers are trying to develop common ground on how to increase mobility and decrease congestion across Hampton Roads. No one is suggesting that consensus is looming, especially with legislators still discussing which projects to build. They haven't really begun what promises to be the most contentious discussion: how to pay for at least $9 billion in road priorities.

But Hampton Roads lawmakers have increasingly found themselves echoing similar concerns and priorities, especially since Dels. G. Glenn Oder and Phil Hamilton floated the idea that a modest expansion at the HRBT could ease congestion and inspire the public to buy into a new roads plan. There's no concrete plan yet because an expansion would likely have to stretch from where Interstate 64 slims to two lanes at Hampton's Settlers Landing Road all the way to Wards Corner in Norfolk.

Del. Paula Miller represents the Norfolk district that sits on the southern end of the HRBT, where earlier studies suggested that widening the crossing could wipe out more than 130 waterfront homes. So Miller turned heads during a public forum in Hampton last week.

"There's no question that part of the fix has to be at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel," Miller said. "I feel your pain. We feel your pain on the south side of the water."

Miller acknowledged that she was an unlikely advocate for expansion but that she was encouraged by the potential for finding traffic relief without ruining neighborhoods.

"I think I shocked some of my colleagues here," Miller said.

Count Del. Tom Gear, R-Hampton, among those most taken aback.

"It was great to hear that from Paula," said Gear, who has been arguably the region's staunchest advocate of a bigger bridge-tunnel.

"I cannot tell you the excitement that I have hearing other delegates talking about the HRBT," Gear continued. "It's definitely a start."

Optimism from Gear is also noteworthy, especially when coupled with similar sentiments from Sen. John Miller, D- Newport News. Gear and Miller have a relatively short history, and they rarely see eye to eye. Both, however, said they were now more hopeful about finding a transportation solution than they were when they left Richmond in early March.

"I feel better today than I did two weeks ago," Miller said.

Miller thinks the key is to not be in too much of a rush on a delicate and complex issue that has been on priority lists for two decades.

"Every time we go to one of these meetings, another idea is thrown on the table," he said. "We've got to keep talking and keep getting more public input. We've waited 20 years. We can wait a little longer to get it right."

Local lawmakers are talking openly and more frequently about banding with other urban lawmakers to steer the transportation discussion in Richmond.

Del. Kenneth Melvin, D-Portsmouth, pushed local residents and lawmakers to think outside traditional partisan lines that clashed in the legislature. He said Hampton Roads lawmakers needed to vote along Hampton Roads' boundaries.

"We have got to use the regional muscle that we have," Melvin said.

Using that approach, Melvin suggested, local legislators could align with their counterparts from Northern Virginia to push a roads plan through the General Assembly. He said there was palpable desperation in the Washington suburbs, where traffic backups were a painful routine.

"You know we're going to get the vote in Northern Virginia," Melvin said. "We've got the votes to pass anything."

But additional hurdles to finding a transportation solution continue to emerge. The Kaine administration and Democratic allies are homing in on problems with paying for interstate upkeep. They say the road system needs a big statewide fix, so Virginia doesn't start forfeiting federal money in the near future.

Shucet laid out that problem in bare terms, explaining that when matching state money ran dry, federal tax money raised at gasoline pumps across Virginia would end up getting shipped out — to help other states build up their transportation systems.

"If you read about that situation in another state, you would say, 'We would never let that happen in Virginia,'" Shucet said.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, said the growing maintenance deficit was a revelation. He said, "I didn't understand the extent of us underfunding maintenance."

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