HNTB is helping VDOT bring meaningful toll relief to underserved communities in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area
Tolling plays a large role in delivering much-needed transportation improvements to communities. To help ensure everyone has access to affordable and equitable mobility options, HNTB is helping owners pioneer equity programs to ensure toll fees are not a burden to the area’s underserved.
In December 2016, the Virginia Department of Transportation and toll facility operator Elizabeth River Crossings executed the nation’s first toll relief program, providing a discount to qualified residents who use the Elizabeth River Tunnels. In the past year significant changes were made to the program to offer more mobility access to more people.
ERC increased its funding of the program from $500,000 annually to $3.2 million annually with a 3.5% yearly increase, and the qualifications are now expanded to include more residents than ever before.
The program is now open to anyone who earns less than $50,000 a year and resides in any of the 16 jurisdictions across Hampton Roads. Additionally, instead of receiving a 75-cent refund after an 8-trip minimum, participants receive a 50% discount on up to 10 trips per week, discounting the toll to $1.05 during off-peak hours and $1.39 during peak hours. Lastly, the December to February enrollment window has been eliminated. Residents can now enroll anytime year-round and receive their discounts immediately versus waiting until March under the previous program.
“We are very committed to this community and with this improved program we want to benefit as many income-restrained residents as possible, across the entire region,” says Anna Bonet, CEO of Elizabeth River Crossings.
Over the next year, VDOT and ERC plan to monitor the program and measure response.
“ERC is a good partner. Their generosity, collegial nature and collaborative approach make the program possible,” said David Caudill, PE, VDOT toll division administrator.
Before the expansions of the toll relief program, only Portsmouth and Norfolk residents who made less than $30,000 per year, held a Virginia E-ZPass® account and made eight roundtrips per month through the tunnels were eligible to receive a 75-cent credit per trip.
According to Todd Pendleton, HNTB toll technology consultant, determining the right discount amount begins with two foundational questions.
“Owners need to decide whether they will give a lot of relief to a few people or a little relief to many. Second, they need to know how much money they will distribute,” Pendleton said.
With VDOT’s feedback, HNTB developed an adjustable distribution model based on income levels, frequency of use, discount amount and geographic scope.
“HNTB did a great job predicting the distribution amount,” Caudill said. “Our goal was to refund $500,000 a year. The first year we distributed about $460,000, which gave us tremendous confidence in the model.”
Pendleton also pointed out the third prong to VDOT’s strategy: a conservative start.
“VDOT began with a discount amount that was safely within their budget, satisfied the targeted population and could be increased if enrollment came in under their estimates,” he said.
Then-Governor Terry McAuliffe ensured everyone had a voice in the program’s development by forming a diverse steering committee of local businesses, social services agencies, military personnel and community representatives who helped determine equitable program parameters. HNTB facilitated the steering committee and conducted extensive market research to identify those residents most impacted by the tolls, where they lived and what they valued in terms of a discount.
According to Cherie Gibson, HNTB public involvement and communications strategist, customizing the program to the community’s specific needs is essential to success.
“Is a $25 discount a month enough? Would people who do not own vehicles value a transit pass or a bicycle subscription? We co-created the program with constituents by working with them to define ‘meaningful,’” she said.
Focus groups and surveys provided the insights VDOT and HNTB needed.
“HNTB’s research and technical expertise created a predictive model we are very pleased with and one we will use moving forward,” Caudill said. “Next fall, if participation numbers are behind where they should be, we can update the model’s assumptions to determine how to make the program more appealing.”
The expansion is expected to increase participation from an average of 2,150 residents per year to as many as 12,000 residents annually, giving localities more flexibility to meet the mobility needs of all citizens. Based on ERC’s 3.5% annual increase, by 2036, the program will have provided $61.7 million in toll relief to thousands of customers.
“We design safe and beautiful transportation facilities, but we design them for people, so they need to be accessible to everyone.”
HNTB public involvement and communications strategist
SEE MORE ARTICLES