Is a Toll a Tax?

Sep 11, 2013

State leaders say they do not have a contingency plan if the Virginia Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling that tolls are taxes and not user fees.  

A group of Hampton Roads residents won a victory earlier this year over whether or not they are being unfairly tolled to pay for construction of a second Midtown Tunnel and maintenance of other tunnels.

Those who support VDOT's position say that if residents within that region win this lawsuit, citizens throughout the entire state will lose.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys say VDOT is forcing residents to pay a two-dollar fee for the Downtown and Midtown tunnels in addition to taxes already paid for completed projects. They also argue that toll revenues will pay for projects outside their region from which they don't benefit.  Senator Kenneth Alexander says the state Constitution does not give VDOT taxing authority.

"If the toll revenues are going to stay at that facility at the point of collection, then there's no argument. But when the monies are going to be moved elsewhere outside of the region--possibly,  what VDOT considers to be 'reasonable projects', then that's a problem. That's a tax,” said Alexander.

The state’s attorneys say the tolls are properly authorized user fees, and moneys generated will pay for related projects allowed by the Constitution. Transportation Board Commissioner Gregory Whirley says the state can’t afford to lose this lawsuit.

"We have tolls at Dulles toll road, we have a number of other tolling facilities around the state. It could have wide reaching effects if we are not allowed to toll,” said Whirley.

One option is to tax all state residents if the High Court strikes down the tolls … and restructure deals with the companies who’ve been promised a return on investment until the year 2070.