Structuring the U.S. 460 Connector as a public-private partnership (P3) shielded the $1.4 billion project from much of the oversight required for conventional Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) projects, found a confidential report by VDOT’s Assurance Compliance Division and the Office of the State Inspector General.
As a consequence, the McDonnell administration was able to pursue a “very aggressive or extremely aggressive” schedule for advancing the project without informing the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) or the general public of major regulatory issues that threatened the project’s viability. Due to concerns over the impact on nearly 500 acres of wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had balked on issuing needed environmental permits. Even so, VDOT paid $250 million to the design-build contractor, US Mobility Partners, under the terms of the contract.
“This action may have placed additional permitting risks and associated schedule risk on taxpayers of the commonwealth of Virginia,” states the confidential, 54-page report obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, suspended the project early this year until the permitting issues could be resolved. He said the state potentially could be exposed to $500 million in losses. VDOT is examining alternative routes for the project that the Army Corps might find more acceptable.
I have not seen the report. I base this commentary purely upon the distillation of it appearing in the T-D. What appears to be absent is any assessment of who was responsible for pursuing the project so aggressively and whether that effort triggered any alarms or pushback within VDOT. Perhaps that omission is inevitable, given that McDonnell administration officials and U.S. 460 Mobility Partners declined to hand over requested documents. The governor, his chief-of-staff Martin Kent and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said that the state code protected the documents as governor’s working papers.
(Update: A copy of the report has fallen into my hands, and I was incorrect to surmise that it did not address who was responsible for pushing the project. In fact, the report concludes: “The Route 460 project was a priority of the McDonnell Administration and championed by the former Secretary of Transportation, who provided persistent oversight and direction to both the Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnership (“OTP3″) Director and VDOT staff to ensure the timely execution of the Comprehensive Agreement.”)
There is an inherent tension between confidentiality and the public’s right to know in a public-private partnership. A prospective private-sector partner understandably does not want to negotiate a contract in the media. On the other hand, when a contract is completed, it is presented as fait accompli. If the public does not like the terms, too bad, the contract will not be renegotiated. Also, as it transpires in this case, US 460 Mobility Partners was able to withhold invoices that would be public record if the project had been conducted by VDOT.
The original impetus behind the P3 project was understandable. The McDonnell administration wanted to solicit independent and creative thinking from the private sector on how to finance the project. But all three of the consortia that submitted proposals agreed that tolls could support only a small portion of the total cost. The McDonnell team scrapped the idea of contracting with a private partner to design, build, own and operate the 55-mile, Interstate-grade highway, and decided to hire one of the three, US Mobility Partners, to design and build the project, and then turn it over to VDOT to own and operate. Why not let VDOT handle the entire project? In theory, US Mobility Partners would shoulder the risk of completing construction on time and on budget.
In practice, the use of the partnership structure allowed the McDonnell administration to cloak problems from the CTB and the public. While VDOT did brief the CTB on the project, it never mentioned the Army Corps permitting issues that could put the entire deal in jeopardy. The inspectors concluded that the state had not broken any rules in handling things the way it did but there is no denying that the McDonnell administration kept a massive problem out of the public eye until the McAuliffe team took over and Layne could see what had transpired.
The report made two worthwhile recommendations. First, there should be a 30-day cooling-off period for public-private deals to allow legislators to review negotiated contracts before they take effect. Second, VDOT should consider the Corps’ input in the planning stages of highway projects, not after a project has been contracted. Sounds pretty basic.
This report doesn’t close to answering all the questions I have (and that others should have) about this project. But it does represent progress. We know more now than we knew before.