Roads bill would increase oversight

1/27/2015 –

With the U.S. Route 460 project fresh on their minds, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and House Republicans on Tuesday announced a compromise on transportation legislation designed to create more oversight on state road projects and reallocate funding to repair infrastructure and address local needs.

“This will never happen again,” McAuliffe said of the former $1.4 billion U.S. 460 project, in which the state assumed all liability and paid roughly $300 million to a private contractor for a wetlands unfriendly Petersburg-to-Suffolk roadway plan that failed to secure necessary environmental permits and never broke ground.

The governor called the process that resulted in the road debacle “an atrocity.”

McAuliffe suspended the project shortly after taking office last year. On Monday, VDOT and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed a proposal for a modified plan that would involve upgrading the existing roadway, and building new sections and a bridge for between $375 million and $425 million. The new road would impact 52 acres of wetlands, far fewer than the 486 projected under the old plan.

The governor also strongly suggested that the private consortium the McDonnell administration contracted for the original job, US 460 Mobility Partners, should work with the state and consider applying some of what its already been paid to the new job, especially if it wants to do business with the commonwealth in the future.

On Tuesday, McAuliffe, flanked by Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne and House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, outlined legislation that would put into the Code of Virginia specific guidelines and additional oversight on the process for entering into future public-private partnership transportation projects.

A steering committee would be put in place to evaluate the value of a project to the public and the risks associated with the project. Guidelines for vetting and soliciting public comment would also be part of the process.

“We can’t have political roads, we have to have roads and construction that makes sense,” the governor said, saying the goal was “spending the right money on the right roads.”

In addition to reforming the PPTA process, proposed legislation will also change the state’s transportation funding formula. Officials said it would focus resources on infrastructure improvements to defective bridges and crumbling stretches of road, as well as stabilize funding for public transit projects and allocate money to local transportation districts to address their priorities.

“I think everybody knows how important transportation is to economic development and quality of life,” said the governor, who lived in traffic-clogged Fairfax County before moving to the Executive Mansion.

“It shouldn’t take you an hour and a half to go see your kids play a ball game in the afternoon.”

The bipartisan legislation also includes a reform provision for the Commonwealth Transportation Board that would limit a governor’s authority to terminate board members only for cause.

McAuliffe did not directly say whether he would support similar limitations to gubernatorial power in other transportation appointments, such as the authority to appoint and replace members of the board of the Port Authority of Virginia. But he said he supported decisions that would help move the commonwealth forward in terms of transportation and its link to economic development.

By JIM NOLAN Richmond Times-Dispatch