Seventeen years ago, Virginia passed what was said to be one of most progressive pieces of legislation in the country. The Public-Private Transportation Act would help build road in the tax-averse state by shifting some of the cost and management to the private sector.
The result has been 14 miles of adjusted-toll HOT lanes on Interstate 495 in Northern Virginia, proposed extensions to tunnels in Hampton Roads, superhighway connectors in the Richmond area and a planned $1.4 billion road linking Suffolk to Petersburg.
But just how much oversight is there in such public-private partnerships? Hardly any, argues James J. Regimbal Jr., a transportation analyst in a new report published by the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center.
Regimbal paints a disturbing, if not scary, picture of how the Old Dominion operates something like a dictatorship when it comes to deciding to move forward on road projects involving public-private partnerships.
As public funds grow short, traditional oversight bodies are being sidestepped. In their place, decision-making is being concentrated “into fewer people — and, ultimately, the Governor,” he writes.
Traditionally, state road planning was the sphere of metropolitan planning organizations and the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which serves at the pleasure of the governor. They, however, are pretty much out of the picture when it comes to roads funded by public-private partnerships, as is the General Assembly.
Consequently, Virginia is getting roads without sufficient public input, transparency on bidding and attention to federal environmental laws, Regimbal writes.
The public-private partnership idea “has evolved and grown substantially beyond the General Assembly’s original intent,” he concludes. “The question is whether the PPTA process is good at producing public benefits with as low a price as possible, that is fair to the travelling public, that adequately considers external factors such as environmental impacts and that is consistent with Virginia’s long-term transportation goals.”
Among the legislative fixes Regimbal recommends are making sure that public hearings are held at least 30 days before a major PPTA deal is approved, that environmental reviews are done before, not after, such approval and that at least two bidders compete for PPTA work. The General Assembly should also have the power to appoint some members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board besides just the governor.
So far, the McDonnell administration, which has throttled through the Hampton Roads tunnel projects, as well as the new superhighway near U.S. 460 in Southeastern Virginia, has been quiet about Regimbal’s report. It would be unfair to place all of the problems on McDonnell’s lap, however. Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have been equally enthusiastic about public-private partnerships.
What’s more, the Big Brother approach doesn’t always work in a practical sense. The Pocahontas Parkway linking Interstate 94 with I-64 and I-295 east of Richmond was hustled off to a public-private partnership arrangement after ridership proved so anemic the state’s bond rating was jeopardized. Now the private firm involved, an Australian company, wants to unload its share of the project because it is still a money-loser. There are similar worries about the new road planned next to U.S. 460.
The PPTA has always been pushed as Virginia’s innovative silver bullet so it doesn’t have to face up to its serious road-funding problems. Regimbal’s crucially-important study shows how democratic values are also being trampled in the process.