NEWPORT NEWS—New polling data released Wednesday suggests that the Peninsula lawmakers' fixation on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is right in line with the opinions of local commuters.
Pollsters from Christopher Newport University found that local voters believe expanding the link between Norfolk and Hampton and improving regional mass transit should be the top projects in Hampton Roads. Four out of every 10 people contacted in the survey said widening the HRBT should be one of the top two priorities in the region. The long-discussed third crossing ranked third on the list.
The polling data comes just a day after the state transportation commissioner ordered a new study on the potential for expanding the HRBT. Kidd said that chasm doesn't mean either side is right or wrong, but that the dialogue over transportation projects and priorities needs to improve.
The poll was released just as tidbits of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's looming plan to raise more money for transportation have started to leak out. Kaine is expected to roll out his proposal for fixing the state's road woes in the next 10 days and lawmakers are gearing up for a special legislative session on transportation in Richmond in late June.
"All issues are on the table," Kaine said.
Lawmakers thought they had a fix last year, but public outcry and a state Supreme Court ruling financially crippled that plan. Now Kaine and fellow Democrats are hoping the do-over allows them to patch up the state's maintenance fund, which is siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars a year away from new road projects.
So far Kaine has been mum on the guts of his plan — which will require legislative approval. But during a radio appearance this week, Kaine indicated that he would try to spread around the burden, possibly relying on increases in the gas tax and the 3 percent sales tax charged on vehicle purchases.
Raising the state's 17.5 cent gas tax is sure to draw the ire of Republicans in the House of Delegates. House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, has all but ruled out statewide tax increases to pay for transportation improvements. Already unpopular, gasoline taxes may be an even tougher sell this year with the economy waning and gas prices routinely reaching record highs. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in Hampton Roads on Wednesday was $3.38, according to AAA.
In the CNU poll, 89 percent of Hampton Roads residents said local traffic is very heavy and 77 percent said congestion levels have gotten worse in the past five years. While 67 percent told pollsters that they want to see increased funding for transportation improvements, the respondents were divided on how to pay for upgrades.
Gasoline taxes did not fare well in the CNU poll, which was conducted in mid-April and outlined the views of 500 registered voters in Hampton Roads with a margin of error of 4 percent. Most drivers said they preferred to raise revenue for roads using tolls on new highways and new bridges built in the region, with tolls on existing crossings and thoroughfares only slightly less popular.
An increase in the statewide sales tax split the poll, with 50 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed, while a statewide gas tax increase found only 31 percent support with 68 percent opposed. Kidd said it was important to remember that Virginia has an anti-tax bent and that other transportation proposals have triggered major backlashes.
"Think about what we're asking people — 'Do you want your taxes raised?' " he said. "That's pretty significant."
Local voters were united against any sort of regional tax increases, which could be in part leftover anger over the 1-cent regional sales tax referendum in 2002 and last year's plan that set up the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority. A regional sales tax increase irked 75 percent of those polled, while 83 percent opposed a regional gas tax increase.
"We really don't like the idea that we should pay for all of this," Kidd said.