Gov. Mark R. Warner proposed new financial controls today for the troubled Virginia Department of Transportation as part of a "reinventing government" initiative that he later recommended to a national audience of state leaders grappling with their own budget crises.
Warner, filling in some details of a legislative program he outlined earlier this week, said he will ask the General Assembly next month to impose a series of accountability standards on VDOT to curtail the cost overruns and construction delays that have plagued the agency.
For the first time, VDOT would have to issue a detailed financial plan for all projects worth $100 million or more and give the public quarterly reports on every highway construction project, said Warner, who repeatedly cited the Springfield Mixing Bowl as an example of lax project management.
In response to the lopsided defeat last month of regional sales tax proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Warner said VDOT will launch a relatively low-cost program to ease bottlenecks in the populous regions. In relieving those traffic "hot spots," VDOT must consult among others the "smart growth" advocates who helped defeat the sales taxes, the governor said.
"We're here today . . . to make sure that the lessons learned from a lack of financial management are not forgotten, and to make sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated," Warner said at VDOT headquarters in Richmond, where he was joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Washington suburbs.
A few minutes later and six blocks away, Warner told the annual meeting of the Council of State Governments that his proposals to reshape VDOT were part of a larger effort to rethink how Virginia delivers services. The Democrat told fellow governors and several dozen state legislators from across the country that they, too, could make their bureaucracies more efficient, even in the midst of the budget shortfalls afflicting nearly all states.
"While these are challenging times, they're also, I believe, times of great opportunity," said Warner, who has struggled with a nearly $6 billion shortfall this year. "This opportunity for reinventing government, this opportunity for streamlining . . . right now will be greater that it has ever been."
Warner's VDOT announcement was the first detailed portion of a legislative package he has only roughly sketched but which will include a number of politically difficult proposals, including changing the state constitution so Virginia's governors can serve consecutive terms; making sweeping changes to budgeting and other financial management; consolidating several agencies; and altering the delivery of mental health services to stress community-based care.
He plans to unveil a legislative initiative nearly every day for the next two weeks, culminating in the Dec. 20 delivery of his budget to the legislature. Warner has said his two-year spending plan will close a remaining $1 billion shortfall with no new taxes.
In October, Warner unilaterally ordered nearly $900 million in agency cuts and the layoffs of 1,837 employees from a state government workforce of about 100,000 people. The legislature will revise Warner's budget and his recommendations on retooling state government during the session that begins in early January.
At VDOT, Warner said the program to address traffic choke points will target the 10 worst bottlenecks in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Each project must cost less than $2 million and be completed in a year; in the Washington area, the projects could include an additional turn lane on the Beltway or new commuter parking lot for the Virginia Railway Express, officials said.
State Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), chairman of the House transportation committee and a supporter of the Northern Virginia referendum, applauded Warner's VDOT proposals as "a very strong and visible step" toward improving the agency.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth that fought the referendum, said he was "very encouraged by the governor's initiative and the new direction it will take."