A Stumbling Start

There have been two big stories surrounding the first meetings of the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority (HRTA). The Mainstream Media did a good job of covering one of the big stories: the vociferous protestations of citizens opposed to tax increases for roads they may never use. But Peter Galuszka, writing for Bacon’s Rebellion’s Road to Ruin project, is the only reporter to fully flesh out other one: The HRTA has gotten off to a stumbling start.

The HRTA has no director, no staff, and no office to put a staff if it had one. The organization is not remotely prepared to execute the job it was tasked to do.

While the HRTA approved last week a batch of taxes and fees capable of raising an estimated $168 million a year, it delayed the date the levies go into effect until April 2008, ostensibly to give the General Assembly an opportunity to fix the tax mix that local residents found so unfair. Until the money starts rolling in, nearly a year after the legislation was passed, the HRTA will have to limp along with staff and administrative leadership contributed by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, which has not been relieved of its normal duties.

While planning district staff may be able to keep HRTA meetings running on schedule, they have neither the time nor the expertise to do the HRTA’s job. That job, as Galuszka points out in “Fizzled Launch,” entails a lot more than collecting tax monies and paying contractors to build roads. All six of the mega-projects to be constructed will be financed most likely by means of public-private partnerships, using a mixture of public funding and toll financing. Someone has to define the scope of the projects, negotiate complex contracts with the private-sector partners, and make sure the private-sector partners are doing what they promised.

For purposes of comparison, look at the difficulty the Commonwealth has had negotiating a contract to build the Rail-to-Dulles project — a contract that outside observers say may leave the state liable for significant cost overruns. (See “The Phase 1 Contract: Read It and Weep.”)

The HRTA launch has already fizzled. Let us pray that the organization does not compound its problems by trying to negotiate complex public-private partnership deals on the cheap just to show the public that someone is “doing something.”

I dispute the value of several of the mega-projects that the HTRA is tasked with building. (More on that later.) But the fix is in. If we’re going to build them, let’s do the best job we can. The transportation authority needs to build a team with the skill sets to craft and administer public-private partnerships, and it needs to do so quickly. If construction costs continue escalating at the rate of six percent per year, every year of delay on $9 billion in projects will cost Hampton Roads taxpayers and toll payers some $50 million a year.

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