Overlooked in the hoopla over the $1.4 billion Route 460 controversy, it appears that the Commonwealth Transportation Board has made an important bid to inject more transparency into decision-making affecting public-private partnerships (P3s). Desiring a “more robust discussion” of such projects, the board has asked the director of the Office of Transportation Public Private Partnerships (OT3P) to conduct a review of its processes with an eye to increasing transparency and public involvement.
That resolution, passed in the CTB’s May meeting, arose in the wake of revelations that the state had paid nearly $300 million to US Mobility Partners, the private-sector, design-build partner in the proposed 55-mile highway between Petersburg and Suffolk, even though the project had yet to receive all of its environmental permits and construction work had yet to begin. Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne suspended work on the project in March until a resolution could be reached with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over wetlands issues.
Layne also initiated a study of how such a screw-up could have occurred. That study was completed last month. The Times-Dispatch obtained the report and reported some findings last week. I now have a copy of the document in my hot little hands. There is a wealth of detail in the report that did not appear in the T-D coverage, and I will endeavor to elucidate the findings as I find time.
One objective of the report, which was conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s director of Assurance and Compliance and by the Office of the State Inspector General, was to “identify the individual(s) responsible for excluding members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board from full and free access to information relating to the 460 project.”
That was a reference to the fact that when the CTB was briefed about the major business terms of the U.S. 460 project on October 17, 2012, no one bothered to inform the policy-making board about the ongoing controversy with the Army Corps of Engineers over the wetlands permitting. As the report confirms: “The presentation did not include any information regarding any environmental permitting issues or concerns.” Based on that briefing, the CTB authorized funding for the project.
The review found that the McDonnell administration provided all “statutorily required disclosures.” However, it also determined that CTB members “were not provided effective communication and/or notice of key events impacting the 460 project.”
I am still working my way through the document, but I have found no indication who made the decision to omit mention of the wetlands controversy to the CTB. Just because VDOT officials were not statutorily obligated to mention the controversy, it surely was relevant and germane to any discussion whether or not to fund the project at that point in time. Any reasonable person would surmise that someone in the McDonnell administration had made the political decision to avoid unwanted questions that might delay the project.
Regardless, it is encouraging to see the CTB assert itself in this manner. The board was exceptionally deferential to McDonnell’s transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton. The one CTB member who openly questioned the administration’s decisions, Jim Rich, was asked to resign from the board.
If the public is to trust state government to engage in public-private partnerships without rigging the results to the detriment of taxpayers, the process of negotiating contracts and approving funding needs to be far more transparent than it is now. I am confident that Doug Koelemay, director of the office of public-private partnerships, will take the request to heart. Not only is he a former CTB member himself, he reports directly to Layne — and Layne appears determined to set a more open, less intimidating tone.