Who really establishes transportation policy for Virginia, the Commonwealth Transportation Board or the McDonnell administration?
by James A. Bacon
Between January and November 2012, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), the government body in Virginia charged with setting transportation policy and allocating transportation revenues, held 10 monthly meetings. During that time, the board voted on 134 resolutions. Of those, 131 passed unanimously. When there were dissenting voices, only a single board member voted in the minority.
Most of those votes dealt with routine, uncontroversial matters such as bid approvals, tweaks to the Six-Year Improvement Program or designation of roads as Virginia Byways. But several votes involved the allocation of hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Consider some of the matters that met with minimal controversy during CTB deliberations:
Not a single CTB member opposed the $2.1 billion proposal to make inter-connected improvements to the Midtown Tunnel, Downtown Tunnel and Martin Luther King Parkway in Norfolk and Portsmouth — even though the project entailed a $362 million commitment from the state, a 58-year concession to a public-private partnership and billions of dollars in new tolls that caused a political uproar when citizens learned of them.
Not a single board member voted against allocating $1.4 billion, including roughly $1 billion in public funds, to the U.S. 460 connector between Suffolk and Petersburg — even though increased traffic on the highway is not expected to materialize for years and the economic return on investment is predicated upon the proposition that massive industrial development will occur in the U.S. 460 corridor.
Only one CTB member opposed funding the U.S. 29 Bypass around Charlottesville, despite the existence of an alternative plan approved by the community and open hostility of much of the Charlottesville-Albemarle County population.
When the McDonnell administration found $150 million to help pay down rates on the Dulles Toll Road, the source of revenue for the highly controversial Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project, it packaged the allocation with the broader Department of Rail and Public Transportation budget, which the CTB approved unanimously without debate. The larger question of state policy toward the heavy rail project never came up.
The McDonnell administration, like its predecessors, prevails with a consistency that would be unimaginable in the General Assembly or a local city council meeting. “CTB meetings are a love fest,” observes Chuck Gates, communications director for the Richmond Transportation Planning Organization. “The CTB rarely contradicts the transportation secretary.”
Given the unanimity on nearly every decision, it’s not illogical for citizens to ask: Is the CTB a rubber stamp board? If the board doesn’t debate billion-dollar spending decisions, what does it do? As the General Assembly debates the merits of restructuring and raising transportation revenues, the answer matters more than ever.
After attending CTB meetings for a year and a half and interviewing nine veteran appointees for this article, asking those very questions, I have concluded that “rubber stamp” is an unfair characterization. But it is safe to say that the CTB does not represent an effective independent voice in overseeing the billions of dollars spent by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Rail and Public Transit. If you’re looking for a board that will ask tough, uncomfortable questions, this is not it.
The CTB role, as described in its handbook, is “to promulgate public policies and regulations, along with other duties.” Among those duties is signing off on the allocation of state transportation funds. Given that the board is comprised of three senior administration officials and 13 representatives who serve at the pleasure of the governor — all but two on the current board were appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell — is it reasonable for citizens to expect representatives to exercise independent judgment, even if it means questioning the administration’s priorities? Read more.