Northern Virginia transit officials are scrambling to defeat legislation in the General Assembly that they fear would undermine long-held local authority over passenger rail and bus service.
If passed, the bills would give an appointee of the governor more voting power on decisions made by Virginia Rail Express and its governing bodies, which also oversee bus service in Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.
The VRE board last week passed a resolution opposing the bills, SB 1210 and HB 2152, both of which are being pushed by the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).
VRE’s board is made up primarily of local elected officials who serve on the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. Each board also has a state representative appointed by the governor.
Votes on the VRE board are weighted based on the number of riders and amount of local taxpayer funds that go to fund the services. The representatives from Prince William, which has the most riders and makes the largest contribution, have three votes, more than any other jurisdiction.
The legislation would give the governor’s appointee three votes as well, a change that state officials say is warranted by the state’s large contribution to transit and rail.
Thelma Drake, the state’s director of rail and public transportation, stood in for the state’s regular appointee at the VRE meeting last week. She voted against the resolution opposing the bills.
VRE is the subject of an FBI investigation, which has led to the guilty plea of Kevin Jannell, VRE’s former facilities manager, in a kickback scheme. Some VRE officials say Drake is using the FBI probe to justify a power play by the state, but in an interview Drake denied any such motivation.
She said the proposed law would clarify the state’s role on the governing bodies and would allow the state to have appropriate say over how transit dollars are spent.
“It doesn’t give us any super-voting power,” Drake said. “We don’t want to micromanage our transit companies. But as a major contributor, we should have a vote and we should be weighted the same as a major contributor.”
VRE board members said they were blindsided by the bills.
VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said he believes that the agency is being caught up in the McDonnell administration’s push to make the state more like Maryland, where the governor has more direct control over transportation funding.
Roeber noted the push for state representation on other boards, such as when McDonnell withheld funds from Metro until the state received seats on its governing board.
“You see actions like this and you have to question the motives,” Roeber said.