By Philip Newswanger
Fear not, tunnel travelers.
You won't have to stop and pay a toll at the Midtown or Downtown tunnel.
You won't have to deal with surly toll takers or gates that won't open, even after you paid your toll.
Nor will you have to deal with racing the next car for the only available lane into the tunnel.
Elizabeth River Crossings, the consortium behind the addition of a second tube at the Midtown Tunnel, improvements at the Downtown Tunnel and an extension of the Martin Luther King Freeway in Portsmouth to Interstate 64, will start collecting tolls in the third quarter of this year.
ERC will use a system called Open Road Tolling, which is prevalent in Arizona and California.
"There will be no toll booths, no reason to slow down and no reason to pay the toll," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nora Chivers.
An overhead structure, similar to the VDOT signs on the interstates, will record E-ZPasses on vehicles traveling through the tunnels and then a monthly bill will be sent to the E-ZPass holder. The structure will span four lanes and will be 17 feet, 6 inches high.
Daily commuters can glide through the tunnels without stopping.
Visitors to the area won't have to worry about the tolls either.
A video camera on the structure will take six photos of their license plate and send them a bill for the toll and a toll recovery fee, which can't exceed more than double the toll.
The ceiling on the toll recovery fee was set by the Virginia legislature.
Toll rates for drivers using both tunnels are set initially at $1.59 for off-peak hours and $1.84 during peak hours for cars and $4.77 for off-peak hours and $7.36 during peak hours for trucks.
Tolls on the Martin Luther King Freeway extension would be $1 or 50 cents for cars that used either of the tunnels and will be collected only on the new section when it opens.
A customer service center for travelers will be constructed in the Pinners Point section of Portsmouth, just before the entrance to the tunnel, and will be operated by E-ZPass.
At the center, drivers will be able to buy E-ZPasses and add vehicles to their account, Chivers said.
Initially, VDOT will set up kiosks at a Portsmouth and Norfolk Department of Motor Vehicles office and one at the new customer center to buy E-ZPasses.
Chivers said kiosks will also be positioned in malls and grocery stores, such as Farm Fresh.
E-ZPass won't charge drivers a monthly fee for a pass, as the company does in other states, such as Maryland, Chivers said.
About 130,000 drivers travel through both tunnels every day, creating bottlenecks in downtown Norfolk and the city's Ghent section.
Many travelers are headed for downtown Norfolk or Norfolk Naval Station.
The $2.1 billion project is being financed through a package of equity, low-interest debt and state funding through the state's Public-Private Transportation Act.
VDOT and ERC signed an agreement last December whereby ERC will retain the concession for the two tunnels and the freeway for 58 years while VDOT will retain ownership of the tunnels.
Elizabeth River Crossings is a joint venture between Skanska Infrastructure Development and a division of the Macquarie Group. nib