by James A. Bacon
The McAuliffe administration has spent much of its first two years unwinding the legacy of botched and controversial public private partnerships inked by the McDonnell administration: radically truncating the plan to to build a U.S. connector between Petersburg and Suffolk, and revising significantly the tolling for Norfolk’s Midtown-Downtown tunnel project. Now, after the enactment of significant legislative reforms, the McAuliffe transportation team is turning to the P3 tool to help fund and/or operate its ambitious plans for Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.
Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne is confident that he can avoid the pitfalls of the previous administration, and that a public-private partnership can make a major contribution to improving mobility along a transportation artery that Governor Terry McAuliffe variously described Thursday as a “parking lot” and “the most congested road in America” at the 2015 Governor’s Transportation Conference in Virginia Beach.
“We’ll be a big supporter of P3s,” elaborated Layne in his own remarks to the conference. “We need to share risk with the private sector. [Virginia] will very much continue to be a leader.”
The I-66 initiative essentially consists of two separate plans: one for inside the Beltway and one for outside the Beltway. The outside-the-Beltway plan entails widening the Interstate, installing HOT lane tolls and ramping up commitment to mass transit. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has generated 13 responses from private-sector players on how to structure the P3.
Where Sean Connaughton, Layne’s predecessor as transportation secretary, regarded P3s as a way to leverage finite public dollars with private investment, thus maximizing total dollars invested, Layne emphasizes the role of P3s in allocating risk. That feedback has been invaluable in surfacing cost and risk issues that VDOT had not considered. “Transparency is the way you have price discovery and risk discovery,” he said.
One set of risks revolves around building a major project on budget and on time. Another major risk is “demand risk” — the likelihood that traffic and revenue forecasts will materialize as projected. There also are risks associated with operations and maintenance. Layne is open to assigning those risks to a private-sector contractor. He has been far more skeptical, however, of relying upon private-sector capital. Private-sector demands for higher financial returns on investment can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of a project.
Layne’s approach is to establish public policy first — what does the Commonwealth want to accomplish along I-66, and how? The administration has made it clear that the I-66 corridor will be multi-modal, including transit, and that the state will not agree to covenants that would restrict for decades construction on other roads that might divert traffic, as the previous administration did in the Downtown-Midtown tunnel project. Those parameters are non-negotiable, except perhaps at the margins. Once those guidelines have been established, he said, the private-sector input can be extremely valuable.
In other remarks, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue told the conference that Virginia and California lead the country with their P3 laws, and that delegations from other states frequently visit the Old Dominion to see what has been done here. Stymied by transparency laws from talking to private corporations “off line,” he explained, other states cannot enact laws like Virginia’s. And that curtails the ability to put together deals like Virginia’s.
An open and transparent process is critical to Virginia’s P3 law, said Donohue, but so is the ability to engage in confidential negotiations. He believes that Virginia has done a good job, based upon its extensive experience with P3s, in threading the needle between transparency and confidentiality. “Steps we have taken in the last couple of years have addressed a lot of problems” with Virginia’s law, he said.
The decision-making process for the I-66 corridor will put the administration’s faith in P3s to the test. The issue of inside-the-Beltway tolls has exploded into a political furor. More controversy is bound to follow as the administration moves from the concept stage to specific proposals.