PORTSMOUTH, Va. — A 13News Now investigation shows the Downtown and Midtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth generated about $202 million in the last two years, and Hampton Roads drivers may owe millions in unpaid tolls.
Elizabeth River Crossings, the operator of the tunnels on behalf of a private consortium led by Spanish toll company Abertis, chooses not to release information about revenues or toll collection rates.
However, through a series of public records requests to the Virginia Department of Transportation and other agencies, 13News Now received daily traffic reports for the tunnels between September 2019 and September 2021.
An analysis of this data gives a unique look at toll revenues and impacts on the Hampton Roads region, including how many drivers could be crossing the Elizabeth River without paying.
In the past two years, nearly 70 million vehicles passed through the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, according to the traffic reports. Currently, toll fees range from $1.85 to $12.98, depending on the type of vehicle, tag or E-ZPass transponder, and time of day.
The tunnels are managed under a public-private partnership agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia. Therefore, ERC is required to share some information with the state.
Accounting for E-ZPass and Pay-by-Plate rides, peak and off-peak pricing, and passenger and heavy vehicles, our analysis shows ERC generated about $202 million in toll revenue between Sept. 2019 and Sept. 2021.
This does not include late fees or additional charges and would represent full toll payment from all rides.
"The vast majority of people pay the toll and we expect everyone to pay the toll," ERC CEO David Sullivan told 13News Now in an interview.
About 82.3% of vehicles used an E-ZPass to pay tolls over this 2-year stretch, while ERC used video cameras to capture license plate numbers and send out Pay-By-Plate invoices for the other 17.7%.
Unlike some state tolling agencies, Sullivan said ERC doesn’t write off any unpaid tolls as "uncollectable"; it will always pursue collection.
Sullivan and ERC declined to share any information about the percentage of tolls levied via the Downtown and Midtown tunnels that were successfully paid.
However, in other states, that information is public record.
In a 2021 report, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, for example, reports about 6.6% of all toll transactions were not paid last year, even when factoring in successful collections through the pay by plate invoice process.
These uncollected tolls are often referred to as "toll leakage" in the transportation industry.
Applying the Pennsylvania statistics to ERC and the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, that would estimate no toll revenue for about 4.6 million rides over the last two years, or approximately $13.3 million in free trips.
"If some people aren’t putting in their fair share then it sort of detracts and discourages others," said driver Jason Stringer, in Portsmouth.
Sullivan said the tunnels are very different from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, explaining they’re much smaller and more often used by commuters than out-of-state drivers.
It’s also easier to collect tolls from Virginia drivers, as ERC can put holds on vehicle registrations until toll fees are paid.
However, Sullivan again wouldn’t clarify how many tolls go unpaid.
"At this point, we’re not going to share what our leakage number is," he said. "I would say it’s a small percentage."
ERC has the right to raise toll prices up to 3.5% annually until 2070, per the contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia
A 2019 "Life in Hampton Roads" survey from Old Dominion University found nearly half of all respondents said they avoided visiting neighboring cities due to tolls.
"We’ve seen through the research that some people take very drastic behavior especially if it’s a commute, a daily commute," said Wie Yusuf, an ODU Professor in the Strome College of Business School and Public Service.
Yusuf explained that toll leakage is a reality that private companies and government agencies need to be prepared for, especially ones that utilize "free-flowing" tolling systems to reduce traffic congestion.
"As an all-electronic toll system, there are particular challenges to not being able to collect as much revenues as projected," she said. "There’s always going to be [toll evasion], the question becomes who bears the cost at the end of the day."
There’s no cap on the revenues that ERC, on behalf of Abertis and other companies, can generate for managing the Downtown and Midtown tunnels while also balancing expenses, leading to concerns about rising toll prices.
State leaders and toll researchers told 13News Now there would likely be less pressure for ERC to increase toll prices once it pays off close to a billion dollars in debt.
If Hampton Roads drivers owe millions of dollars in unpaid tolls each year, that could delay price relief for everyone else.
When asked about this, Sullivan said long-term maintenance projects will be expensive and it’s difficult to project what will happen decades down the line.
"Our response is we expect everybody to pay the toll and we work hard to make sure that happens," Sullivan said.
Last year, the new owners of the Downtown and Midtown tunnels agreed to extend a toll relief program offered to eligible Norfolk and Portsmouth drivers. It will now last until 2037.
ERC contributes $500,000 to this program each year, and reports there are 1,537 participants to date. The toll relief program is managed by VDOT and more information is available here.