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Kings of the Road?
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?
"I totally reject the concept of a rubber stamp. That’s insulting to the members of the board and to the administration," says W. Sheppard Miller III, an urban, at-large representative from Virginia Beach, and one of the more outspoken members of the board. "The people who are there are not rubber stamp kind of people. And nobody has treated us that way. ... There are not many wilting flowers there."
Normally placid CTB meetings don't reflect the discussion and give-and-take that occurs behind the scenes, agree Miller and every other board member that Bacon's Rebellion interviewed. Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton did not respond to a request for an interview.
"I understand the appearance that there are a bunch of folks sitting around the table, and a chorus of ayes," says Roger Cole, Richmond district representative and owner of Highway Service Ventures, Inc., a chain of truck stops. "The board [meetings] go fairly mechanically. I think the reason for that is the amount of work that’s done prior to that."
"Most of the time, especially on the bigger issues, we have already vetted the details beforehand," says Hollis D. Ellis, an urban at-large member and a holdover from the Kaine administration. "Staff have gone through and worked everything out. If we have questions, we’ll discuss [them] before the meeting."
Board members put in a lot more work than the one day per month they set aside to travel to Richmond and attend meetings. Take Aubrey L. Layne, Jr., the Hampton Roads transportation district representative, for example. Layne has treated the volunteer board position almost as a full-time job. He attends meetings of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization. He represents the CTB in public hearings for major projects like the Downtown Tunnel-Midtown Tunnel and U.S. 460. He attends ribbon cuttings where he hobnobs with local elected officials. And he frequently consults with the VDOT district administrator, not to mention VDOT officials in Richmond, DRPT staff, Sean Connaughton and other CTB members.
Oh, and he also serves as chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Commision, chairman of a a CTB subcommittee on strategic planning and, mostly recently, chairman of the 460 Funding Corporation, which will assemble a bond package to help pay for the U.S. 460 Connector.
"When I got appointed, I didn’t know any better. I approached it like I was running my business," says Layne, who recently wound down his involvement with the Great Atlantic Management real estate firm so he could take over the non-profit Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News. "I spend a lot of time talking to VDOT people, to local politicians. ... I don’t know how I can fulfill this role without doing that. ... I don’t consider myself a rubber stamp. I ask questions. I go through the agenda a week in advance. I get on the phone and ask questions. ... I don't see how I could make an intelligent vote on something without doing it."
Layne may be exceptional for the amount of time he logs on the non-paying job, but all CTB members put in significant hours over and above the monthly meeting. In doing so, they function as conduits of information between local citizens, planners and politicians and the McDonnell administration. In dozens of routine matters, their opinions usually carry weight. Gates, with the Richmond TPO, sees board members as a crucial "channel of advice" that allows the administration to bypass the state employees at VDOT and DRPT and hear other voices in the transportation conversation... but not as a mechanism for telling the administration what it doesn't want to hear.
The Mega-project Era
Once upon a time, when most transportation spending was allocated between districts on the basis of rigid formulas, CTB representatives were the go-to guys to get things done. But as transportation funding for new construction has dried up, the funding formulas have shrunk in relevance. Over the past two or three years, formula-driven spending has been replaced by discretionary spending financed by $3 billion in borrowing and leveraged through public-private partnerships that issue bonds to finance megaprojects. All of these projects have been initiated by Sean Connaughton's office, and negotiations with private-sector vendors have been conducted by the secretary's Office of Public Private Partnerships.
These projects operate by a different set of rules of transparency and public involvement than traditional projects. Private-sector partners understandably insist upon confidentiality when they negotiate with the state. Only when an agreement has been reached are state officials at liberty to release the terms of a deal. If the public doesn't like the terms, however, that's too bad. The state and the private-sector partner are committed to the deal and disinclined to renegotiate. However, when public sentiments are ignored, people feel thwarted.
The problem is not necessarily a matter of bad faith on the part of VDOT or the McDonnell administration, as some might think, it's intrinsic to the public-private partnership process under current law. "The PPTA (Public-Private Partnership Act) has become the tail wagging the dog," says Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). "It was supposed to be a complementary component. It's become the main way decisions are being made. ... It's become the centerpiece of the transportation program."
The focus on mega-projects creates a built-in bias, Pollard contends. "The mega-project focus takes you in a certain direction. It under-emphasizes transit, land use, access management and signallization... You miss the ability to have smaller projects, or combinations of solutions, that address problems more effectively."
If McDonnell passes his proposed tax package, which would raise an estimated $1.8 billion for new construction over five years, the funding-formula drought would end. But there are other reasons why CTB members seem little inclined to buck the administration. Members serve four-year terms. Showing up on the first day can be intimidating -- transportation policy and funding is phenomenally complex.
"An individual could spend 50 to 60 hours a week understanding everything," says Layne, an accountant by training. He recalls spending a couple of days with VDOT staff just to figure out how the funding formulas worked. The flow charts, he says, "looked like spaghetti."
Roger Cole, Richmond district representative, feels much the same way. "The learning curve is steep and I’m still climbing it."
As a consequence, it can take months before new board members know enough to ask tough questions or take unpopular stands.
Then there is the reality that big projects take years to come to fruition, often overlapping gubernatorial terms and CTB appointments. "There’s a little bit of an impulse," says Cole, "to say if they’ve been looking at these [projects] for 20 years, to think that my simple little questions have been answered many times before. There's an impulse to stay quiet."
Another factor biasing board members toward administration stances is that they rely heavily upon VDOT and DRPT staff to update them on the history and the complex details of projects. While state employees receive wide praise for being helpful, they do represent an institutional viewpoint.
Jim Rich, a former Shell Oil executive and the only member of the board to butt heads with Connaughton, suggests that the CTB should have two staffers beholden directly to the board, not to VDOT or the transportation secretary's office. He'd like to have access to a financial person and a technical person "so we can get an independent evaluation" of projects. No such idea is in the works, however.
There is one more reason for the lack of open controversy: CTB members tend to defer to the representative in whose district a project is located. "You look to the district person to work out the details and bring it forward," says Cord Sterling, Fredericksburg region representative.
That logic was particularly evident in the decision-making regarding the Midtown Tunnel-Downtown Tunnel and the U.S. 460 projects in Hampton Roads, when other CTB members leaned heavily upon the opinions of Layne, Miller and Ellis. One important exception was the vote on the Charlottesville Bypass, where the board overrode the vehement objections of Rich, the Culpeper representative. In that case, however, board members were deferring to the McDonnell administration, which strongly backed the project on the grounds that U.S. 29 was a highway of statewide significance, hence of importance beyond Charlottesville.
"The board has an obligation to oversee the entire transportation plan for the commonwealth," says Mark Peake, who represents the Lynchburg district, which consistently receives less construction funding per capita than any other district in the state. "We understand people lobbying for their various areas. But we have to watch for the balkanization of transportation, where we divide up into areas and fight each other. We need a comprehensive transportation plan that works for the entire state."
Outside Looking In
Some long-term observers of the CTB suggest that group think is inevitable given the way the board operates. First, most issues are largely worked out by the time they reach the board's attention. "A lot of the issues and questions have gotten worked out at the staff level," says one trade executive who asked to remain unnamed. "By the time an issue gets [to the board], the administration is ready to move it along."
Second, board members hear at the meetings only a narrow set of views picked by the transportation secretary. While outsiders sometimes do make presentations, says the association executive, "it's by invitation only." If someone is opposed to a measure, he or she gets three minutes during the public participation phase to make their point. "What you tend to have at CTB meetings is presentations from staff. ... If there's another side to the story, you won't be getting it outside the public comment time."
Others have complained about procedural issues, particularly the timely dissemination of public information. "Information isn't being given out to [board members] or the public as far in advance as in the past," says Trip Pollard, the SELC attorney. "Some issues don't get very well discussed."
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth," makes similar points. CTB members, he says, "do not ask the probing questions that need to be asked." They should call for independent perspectives and not limit themselves to hearing VDOT and DRPT presentations. Perspectives should come from environmental resource agencies, local governments, trade associations and non-profit and civic groups. "I'm not just talking once twice a year, but for every monthly meeting."
For the most part the CTB is presented with a single option, which it votes up or down in a yes-no vote. "The counterpoints and other options are never presented. They're never allowed to step back and look at the big picture and the choices," says Schwartz. And with two or three exceptions, he adds, board members do not ask probing questions. "I don't believe they ask the questions that a Fortune 500 CEO would ask of his staff before making multi-billion dollar investment decisions."
"Any reasonable board needs to ask questions," says Rich, who has been the odd man out more than any other. "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."
This article was made possible by a sponsorship of the Piedmont Environmental Council.