News Column

Financial Markets 'Confused' Over Tolls Ruling: VDOT

May 20, 2013

A judge's ruling striking down the Midtown and Downtown tunnel tolls has cast a cloud over other transportation projects, exposed the state to unknown damages and left financial markets "at best, confused," according to a court memo by lawyers for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

For those and other reasons, the lawyers have asked Circuit Judge James A. Cales Jr. to suspend his May 1 ruling until it can be appealed. Cales will consider the request at a hearing Tuesday in Portsmouth Circuit Court.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit counter that the state has failed to show why a suspension of Cales' order is necessary. They argue in a court filing that any financial injury to VDOT is the consequence of the terms of the comprehensive agreement it negotiated with Elizabeth River Crossings, the state's private partner in the tunnel project. They also argue that a stay of Cales' order will not resolve the financial uncertainties around it; only a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia on the appeal will.

Cales ruled earlier this month that the General Assembly had exceeded its authority by ceding "unfettered power" to VDOT to set tolls rates for the Midtown project. The ruling against the fees invalidates a major component of the financing and profit-making structure of the public-private deal.

The tolls are scheduled to start Feb. 1, 2014, and run to 2070. The plaintiffs contend in their court filing that the Supreme Court "will undoubtedly decide any appeal" by Feb. 1.

In the meantime, VDOT and Elizabeth River Crossings continue to move ahead on design and construction work. Elizabeth River Crossings reported expenses totaling $348 million as of March 31.

The plaintiffs take a shot at VDOT's assertion that it wants Cales to suspend his ruling to "reduce the drain on the Commonwealth's treasury." That "rings hollow," the plaintiffs wrote, "because they are continuing construction and thereby adding to the potential damages that will be claimed."

For more on this story, return to PilotOnline and read tomorrow's Virginian-Pilot.


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