by James A. Bacon
James E. Rich has resigned from his position at the Commonwealth Transportation Board under pressure from the McDonnell administration. The Culpeper transportation district representative had opposed funding of the controversial Charlottesville Bypass and then had tried repeatedly, without success, to get the decision overturned.
One of the board’s more outspoken members, Rich supported key administration initiatives such as the upgrade to U.S. 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg, the Midtown Tunnel-Downtown Tunnel project in Norfolk, and major financial commitments through the Virginia State Infrastructure Bank. However, he sought reassurances that the Virginia Department of Transportation was not taking on undue financial risk in its public-private partnership deals. And he visibly irritated Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton with his Don Quixote-like tilting at the Charlottesville Bypass.
Rich told Bacon’s Rebellion that he resigned “a couple of weeks ago.” Connaughton did not acknowledge Rich’s resignation during the CTB meeting early this afternoon. But his seat was vacant and, as is customary, board members with less seniority took seats closer to the dais. Rich’s biographical information has been scrubbed from the CTB website.
Rich, a McDonnell appointee, confirmed that he was asked to resign but refused to divulge details. However, he told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the removal took place in a phone call with Connaughton.
“There was great consternation when I voted against the Charlottesville Bypass,” Rich said. “There was an attempt to push me out at that time. I’m not going to sit on the board as a potted plant. You have a statutory duty to make the best decisions you can with the information you have. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m not going to waiver from that just to say I have a title.”
The retired Shell Oil executive said the CTB is far more passive today than when he served on it two decades ago during the Allen administration. “When I was under Allen, it had a very substantive role. The outcome was not dictated by the chairman of the board,” he said, referring to Connaughton.
Given the administration’s low-key handling of Rich’s ouster, there has been little reaction. However, Trip Pollard, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, did say this:
This is disappointing news and we hope it’s not the result of an effort to silence dissent. Mr. Rich has been a valuable, independent voice on the CTB. He has consistently sought greater public input into transportation decisions and been willing to raise tough questions about the effectiveness of particular proposals and the failure of state officials to adequately consider less costly and less destructive alternatives to projects. We urge the Governor to choose a replacement who will bring a similar level of dedication to spending our tax dollars more wisely and to pursuing a more balanced transportation approach.
His forced resignation should raise red flags, Rich said. Diminished tax revenues mean that fewer funds flow through formulas that distribute money dispassionately to each VDOT transportation district. By borrowing $3 billion, which it is leveraging through public-private partnerships, the administration is not bound by traditional checks and balances and has largely dictated how the money was spent. “One of the lessons for members of the General Assembly, with the secretary running the show unilaterally, [is that] they need to have some review of expenditures so they have some say in what’s going on.”
In an article two days ago (See “Kings of the Road?“), Bacon’s Rebellion noted the absence of controversy and dissenting votes in CTB meetings, and asked whether the board was a rubber stamp. Interviewed before his resignation, Rich had suggested that board members were too dependent for information upon VDOT and Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT) staff and recommended that the CTB hire a financial expert and technical expert that answered directly to the board.
“Any reasonable board needs to ask questions,” Rich told Bacon’s Rebellion. “You don’t want to end up like the General Motors board that rubber-stamped everything that management put forward. … The more oversight an agency has, the better.”