SUFFOLK—The Peninsula obsession with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel is spreading south.
Lawmakers from across Hampton Roads gathered Thursday to talk about the region's ailing transportation network in the hopes of getting a clearer picture of where they all stand on the options for improving mobility for commuters from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach.
Del. John Cosgrove, R- Chesapeake, heads up the Hampton Roads Caucus and organized the transportation summit. Cosgrove is part of growing list of lawmakers who are stressing relief at the HRBT.
"The Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in some way, shape or fashion has to be a part of the system (of upgrades)," Cosgrove said. "And I'm saying that as a Southside legislator."
The bridge-tunnel was thrust back into the General Assembly's transportation discussions late last week when a pair of Peninsula lawmakers suggested that a modest expansion of the crossing could go a long way to improving regional traffic congestion and bring together a fractured local delegation that has been unable to come to consensus on roads.
The nearly four-hourlong meeting in Suffolk was densely populated with Hampton Roads lawmakers, including 18 delegates and seven senators, plus surrogates for another five legislators and two congressional aides.
Transportation has been a major political focus for at least the past two years. But it has taken on added weight this spring as the General Assembly prepares for a looming special session on transportation — to make up for scrapping the wildly unpopular abusive driver program and the regional bodies in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. The two transportation authorities were stripped of taxing power by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Thursday's meeting revived the long-running dispute over the third crossing and the HRBT and only briefly touched on how legislators want to raise more money for roads — sure to be a major sticking point when lawmakers begin crafting proposals likely to involve tax increases.
Former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet turned heads when he suggested lawmakers consider a wide array of new ideas, such as a bridge arched over the HRBT, a span far above the shipping channel. "I'm not trying to suggest it's a better option," Shucet cautioned. "Only that studies do well when there are options."
Del. G. Glenn Oder, R- Newport News, was one of the lawmakers who suggested that a single additional two-lane tube at the HRBT could help break the traffic and political logjam. "We will look at a bridge," Oder said. "I'm constantly open-minded."
The spotlight on the HRBT forced local planners to explain why upgrades to the HRBT weren't on the priority list of six projects given to the General Assembly last year. Hampton Roads Planning District Commission Executive Director Art Collins said the third crossing provided the most overall congestion relief.
"Keep in mind that the third crossing doesn't solve getting across Hampton Roads," Collins said noting that a $33 billion wish list was whittled down to $9 billion worth of projects. "We just ran out of money."
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim addressed lawmakers as the head of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated organization. The third crossing includes $600 million worth of transit that could include a full tube for either light rail, a high-speed bus or some other form of mass people mover. He said the new link is crucial to moving sailors in and out of Naval Station Norfolk and goods through the Port of Virginia.
The moniker of "third crossing" is "maybe the worst name for a project ever," he said. "It's much more than simply a crossing."
Fraim acknowledged that a modest expansion at the HRBT would "greatly improve" congestion and said that, hypothetically, a seventh project could be added.
Collins said, however, that the federal government would shelve the entire package if the regional body amends the plan without first displaying a concrete way to pay for every project. "If we try to change it they all go away," Collins said.
State Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, said lawmakers need to pressure local elected officials to revise the priority list.
"They are wedded to that list of projects and at some point there's going to have to be a divorce," Miller said.
Statewide funding was also a major discussion point, as Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer laid out how skyrocketing maintenance costs are draining cash away from new projects. This year, Homer said, the state had to take $260 million away from construction to pay for upkeep — that includes $54 million that would have gone toward new local projects. Homer said this hole would eventually leave the state unable to match federal funding for new road projects.
"For every state dollar you don't have, you lose four federal dollars," Homer said. "This is reality — in fact, this is tomorrow."
But filling that maintenance deficit appears to be triggering a rift between Democrats, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, and conservatives such as House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford.
Senate Transportation Chairwoman Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk, said lawmakers must tackle the maintenance problem before going local.
"No matter how much money we have as a region, if we lose our statewide money we'll still be in a hole," she said.
Del. Terrie Suit, R-Virginia Beach, countered that local lawmakers should focus on Hampton Roads.
"It's the regional that got thrown out" by the Virginia Supreme Court, Suit said. "These are two different issues we're talking about."
As the meeting drew to a close, Del. Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, brought up the dreaded T-word. "We have not talked about the critical issue — the gorilla in the room," Alexander said. "The issue is we need money. Are we willing to raise taxes?"