By Lydia Wheeler
The Southside mayors all agree on one thing at least: They hate tolls.
Though former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation package will provide $25 billion for regional transportation projects from now to 2040, residents of Hampton Roads may see more tolls in the future.
It has long been the position of the region that tolls will need to be imposed to build a new river crossing, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim told a crowd of about 400 people during the Southside Hampton Roads Mayors Forum on Thursday. The good news? There’s a chance to keep them at reasonable rates. If the general assembly passes legislation to create a Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, Fraim said, there will be a framework from which to create a regional tolling authority. Made up of the elected officials of each jurisdiction, two state senators, three delegates and other unspecified members of the state, he said the accountability commission’s main priorities will be to push for projects that have the greatest impacts on congestion, the economy and safety.
The mayors’ forum was part of Regent University’s Executive Leadership Series sponsored by TowneBank and the topics of discussion this year were transportation, military downsizing and casino gambling.
While many people may think Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff is not a proponent of public transportation, he said as a kid from Brooklyn who grew up in Queens nothing could be farther from the truth, but he wants a regional transportation plan.
“To start, I would plant a flag at Naval Station Norfolk and build from there,” he said. “NS Norfolk is the wold’s largest naval station and if we want to keep her here, we have to pay very close attention to her needs.”
With 67,000 people attached to the base and 35,000 vehicles driving onto the base in an average workweek, having a light rail station there, Krasnoff said will solve the area’s transportation problems.
“Naval Station Norfolk is a regional resource and a regional activity center,” he said. “On that notion, shouldn’t it also be a regional transportation project?”
While Fraim and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms both voiced their oppositions to casino gambling in Virginia, Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth Wright chose not broach the topic in his 10-minute speech despite the fact that Portsmouth has been cited as one of only two localities where a casino could go. The Portsmouth City Council endorsed state Sen. L. Louise Lucas’s bill to create a commission to license casino gaming in the state. Instead, Wright spoke about inequality in the region.
He said of the 1.7 million people in Hampton Roads, 51 percent are female and 40 percent are minorities. Of that 40 percent, 32 percent are African American, yet Wright said the amount of opportunities passing by minorities and women in the region is going to do more damage than any toll.
“I call it turning a blind eye to this 40 percent minority population in Hampton Roads that are not being made part of this economic transformation we’re tying to get to,” he said.
Quoting the 2012 State of the Region report from James Koch, Old Dominion University’s board of visitors professor of economics and president emeritus, he said “When the government is pushing to find resources to support those who do not have regular income, either higher taxes or a deterioration of services is the almost inevitable consequence. There is a physical bottom line associated with the economic plight of African American men.”
Following Wright’s warning, Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson challenged the crowd to be better cheerleaders. The region needs, she said, to harbor its federal investments by creating spin off business opportunities and spend more time promoting federal projects.
As for Sessoms, who was last to take the podium, he said Virginia Beach is working on becoming a center for research and development, and working to diversify the economy by investing in tourism. He said he wants an arena to be under construction by the end of the year.