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The Idea List
The recently published "pipeline" of 22 public-private partnership proposals does not represent a formal McDonnell administration transportation agenda. Think of it more as an inventory of ideas worth checking out.
by James A. Bacon
Of all the 22 public-private partnership ideas listed in a recently issued McDonnell administration document, the one that gets Tony Kinn the most stoked is a proposal to consolidate Virginia's five regional traffic operations centers. His aspiration, says Kinn, director of the Office for Transportation Public Private Partnerships (OTP3), is to create the best traffic management system in the United States, if not the world.
Traffic operations centers do the mundane work of tracking and clearing traffic accidents, dispatching aid to stranded motorists and updating signs regarding traffic conditions. According to the Daily Press, the Hampton Roads facility in Hampton Roads, with a network of 276 closed-circuit cameras, handled more than 70,000 incidents last year and assisted 40,000 roadside motorists. And that's just one of five around the state. The centers are run by contractors operating under four different contracts using different software platforms. The state has received 32 proposals from companies responding to a solicitation to merge them.
One advantage of a unified system, says Kinn, is that if one center goes down, others could take up the slack. Then there are the improvements that no one has thought of yet. Kinn is looking for innovation. A private-sector operator might test a new concept in one center and, if successful, roll it out to the others. Other states have dabbled with privatizing their centers, he says, but Virginia wants to take traffic operations to the next level.
Consolidation of Virginia's traffic operations centers is one of eight ideas that have reached "candidate" status in the McDonnell administration's P3 prospect list. The pipeline of possible projects also includes 14 projects in the "conceptual" stage. If a conceptual project survives the first cut, it goes through a more rigorous analysis as a "candidate." Says Kinn: "All of these projects go through a high-level screening process to make sure the feasibility is there. "Does it fit the needs of the commonwealth? Can we afford it? Does it provide benefits?"
Smart Growth groups have sounded the alarm over several projects in the list, particularly a proposed North-South Corridor in Northern Virginia, as well as projects well past the "candidate" stage, such as the U.S. 460 Connector, a project estimated at $1.5 billion to $2 billion that would link Suffolk and Petersburg with an Interstate-grade highway. The McDonnell administration has "hijacked good transportation planning and prioritization in Virginia," Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, has said. The P3 projects are approved outside the normal process for distributing road and highway construction dollars, which gives the administration unprecedented leeway to push its own pet projects.
Kinn responds that the list was devised after extensive consultation with Metropolitan Planning Organizations and local government officials around the state, and that "candidate" projects will be elevated to actively pursued projects only after extensive local consultation. "We’re going to go to the people, and the people will have to come to us, and we’ll have to work together."
In a Friday interview, Kinn fleshed out the thinking behind some of the projects in the pipeline.
Interstate 95 Corridor improvements. The McDonnell administration has obtained authority from the Federal Highway Administration to place tolls on I-95 south of Fredericksburg for the purpose of raising funds to make improvements to the interstate corridor. The idea here is to examine the potential for leveraging the revenue flow by means of a P3. The administration is not presupposing that a public-private partnership is a good idea, Kinn says. It is simply examining the option. "What else can we bring to the corridor?"
Interstate 64 HOV lane conversions. I-64 in Hampton Roads has under-utilized HOV lanes. Does it make sense to convert them to HOT lanes like those under construction on the Capital Beltway, in which cars are charged a toll for using a congestion-free lane but car poolers still get to use it for free? The pertinent questions, says Kinn: "Is it feasible? Can we afford it?"
Port of Richmond. APM Terminals has submitted an unsolicited bid to take over management of the Port of Virginia terminals in a deal potentially worth $3 billion to $4 billion in payments to the Commonwealth over 48 years. Says Kinn: "The Panama Canal is going to create a huge influx of business. We are sitting on the threshold of an opportunity for major business growth. ... APM has submitted a proposal -- we want other proposals to come in."
Hampton Roads crossings improvements. A "third crossing" between Norfolk and the Peninsula has been a top priority of Hampton Roads planners for many years. The McDonnell administration wants to see if these projects are feasible using a P3 model.
NoVa North-South Corridor. The idea of building a north-south corridor linking Interstate 66 and Route 7 in Northern Virginia is "in the very preliminary stage," says Kinn. The administration wants to see if P3s can be used to "do that in a profitable and efficient way."
I-66 Corridor. What can be done to increase the capacity of I-66, a major Northern Virginia arterial? "Is it inside the Betlway? Outside the Beltway? A transit system? A combination thereof?" All options will be studied, Kinn says.
Conceptual ideas include using public-private partnerships to privatize municipally owned parking garages, build cell towers and fiber-optic cable on state-owned right-of-way, make improvements to Interstate rest stops, steer investment to the Wallops Island space launch facility and install HOV/HOT lanes on Interstate 581 in Roanoke. Among the ideas:
Gold star truck validation. If the U.S. 460 Connector gets built, it will act as a magnet for manufacturing and logistical investment. Is there any way, asks Kinn, to put a station at a industrial facility where trucks could obtain their weight documentation? The idea would be to give them a figurative "gold star" that says they don't have to stop again in Virginia to get weighed. Saving a stop would save time, and time equals money.
Dulles Metro air rights. Some other states own the air rights over their Metro stations, which they use to build mixed use development above. Can Virginia do the same thing? "This is an economic opportunity," says Kinn. "It may be feasible to build a facility over the station that includes retail, commercial and condominiums. You become the owner of that space and you may be able to generate income from it. Other people have tried it successfully. We're looking into it."
The McDonnell administration has set aside a total of $1.4 billion in public funds toward public-private partnerships. Nearly $400 million has been allocated to the Midtown-Downtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth and $500 million committed to the U.S. 460 Connector. That leaves only $500 million more. Is that sufficient to stretch across so many proposed P3? As a practical matter, does the McDonnell administration have the resources to follow through on these initiatives?
"That's a fair question for [Transportation Secretary] Connaughton and the governor," says Kinn. "I am comfortable that they will find a way to finance these projects. They have reviewed the pipeline, they are comfortable with it, and they say, 'Move forward.' They're comfortable, so I'm comfortable. If our leader says, 'Go,' we're going."