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Bill to merge 3 N.Va. transit agencies worries officials

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 11:46 PM

If it's not broken, then don't fix it: That's the attitude some Northern Virginia transit officials have toward a bill in the state legislature that proposes to merge three major transit agencies in July 2012.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) has filed a bill that calls for the consolidation of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

"There are just too many cooks in the kitchen, so what this bill attempts to do is make one organization responsible," Albo said. "To me, the most important thing is you would have one place to go to get something done."

Albo said the bill follows a recommendation from a government restructuring committee appointed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). Collapsing three organizations into one, Albo said, would save money and be more effective.

Those close to the issue, however, say otherwise.

"Why break something that is working well?" asked Kala Quintana, NVTC's public outreach director. "This is something that may look good on paper by someone who doesn't have a fundamental knowledge of how we all work . . . but these are very different" agencies.

NVTC coordinates transit services throughout Northern Virginia, including Metro, Virginia Railway Express, Loudoun County commuter buses, the Fairfax Connector and other transit systems. PRTC is responsible for the bus system in Prince William County. NVTA serves as a transportation planning group, transit officials said.

Quintana said members of the three groups met with Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton last year when the proposal surfaced. But he reassured them that it was not a "huge priority," Quintana said.

"We didn't hear anything for a while, and we permitted ourselves to believe that would be the end of it, but it turned out it was not," said Al Harf, executive director of PRTC. "There is already a long and proud history of collaboration among these agencies, and this is a concern."

Connaughton said another bill, which calls on the state to dedicate 0.25 percent of the sales tax to NVTA, the organization that is proposed to absorb PRTC and NVTC, has put the issue back in the spotlight. He said Northern Virginia is the only area in the commonwealth that has multiple state-chartered transportation organizations.

"We welcome the idea of new funding, but there is no reason to reorganize . . . and create a behemoth of a bureaucracy to achieve this goal," Quintana said, noting she also questions what will suffer if sales tax money is shifted to it. "There is no reason they couldn't do that now with the existing infrastructure."

NVTA Chairman and Prince William Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said it's unclear what would be gained from a merger, because the three agencies have very different missions and responsibilities. What would be lost, he said, is the jurisdictional autonomy of the groups, which each comprise members from various Northern Virginia localities.

"How operating agencies would tie into a planning agency is not clear to us," Nohe said. "It is a concern that those who are pushing the idea to merge have not articulated how to accomplish the efficiencies they are looking for."

Harf said the makeup of the new group could be "a recipe for quorum problems." For example, Stafford County officials are involved in PRTC but not NVTC. Those representatives might not feel compelled to attend a meeting mainly addressing Metro, which they don't have a stake in.

"Everyone should be concerned about every aspect of transportation in Northern Virginia," Connaughton said. "It's time to have an organization that can address transportation in a comprehensive fashion. . . . We are trying to give Northern Virginia a strong, united regional voice on transportation matters."

Stephen MacIsaac, attorney for Arlington County and VRE, said that if the state moves forward with the merger, it must do so carefully. Several legal issues must be addressed, because each agency has different bond obligations, contracts with service providers and transportation equipment, he said.

"You don't want to terminate two commissions without taking care of these details first," MacIsaac said, noting he plans to present his concerns to Arlington County Board members. "There is also a lot of concern about what problem is being solved here."

Officials from Fairfax and Stafford counties have also expressed concern with the bill. Prince William supervisors have not taken an official position on the issue, but Deputy County Executive Susan Roltsch told them last week that county officials "see no benefit to this consolidation." Loudoun County supervisors are likely to take a position on the bill Monday, Loudoun officials said.

Albo's bill was scheduled to be heard by a transportation subcommittee this week. Albo said that he understands some of the criticisms but that with work, he thinks the bill is the right solution.

buskej@washpost.com

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