Transit commission could hide critical information from the public

By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

OPAQUE: Virginians worry that a new transit commission would be able to keep critical information from the public under the Commonwealth’s PPTA laws.

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — A new transportation committee in Virginia begins work with much responsibility and even more money. Your money.

Come July 1, the ironically named Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission will decide how to spend $200 million. The money is from regional gas and sales taxes, and it will be spent annually on transportation projects in the Tidewater area.

It would be nice for taxpayers to have a say in how that money is spent. The commission has 23 members, yet no established requirements for public input. Those will come later.

So, what in the name of highway tolls is going on here?

So far, we’ve found no requirement to involve the public in the decision-making process. The commission will decide about that when it establishes those aforementioned rules.

“Until they write their bylaws, they have no public comments procedure,” Reid Greenmun, a member of The Virginia Beach Taxpayer’s Alliance.

The commission will get to place tolls on any existing tunnel or bridge, and it can rack up an “unlimited” amount of debt. It also has the authority to hire a CEO and a team of staff members, sans a cap on what they can be paid.

That’s troubling, but let’s, if only for a moment, play devil’s advocate.

While no requirements exist to involve the public, no provisions in the bill tell the commission not to involve the public, either, Maurice McTigue, vice president of outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said in an email to Watchdog.org.

“I would think that the Commonwealth public meetings criteria would apply to the Commission,” McTigue said.

Actually, the commission highlights pre-existing transparency issues with Public-Private Partnerships, as opposed to creating a new problem. One of those issues involves the public weighing in or monitoring the bidding process in negotiations with private contractors during the preliminary phases of a project.

“There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for the public to weigh in on the details of the deal,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Critical details do tend to be exempt from (public) disclosure … It does not have the best track record for ensuring open and adequate bidding,” Pollard said of Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995.

The track record of PPP’s, particularly with the problems caused by the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels and Route 460, show reform of the PPTA is needed, Pollard said.

The tunnels were tolled before. They were free from the late 1980s until February of this year, when tolls were implemented again to fund another tunnel.

PPP’s can be used for good too, Pollard said of the “hot lanes” on Interstate 495.

“My hope is that they will take extra steps to ensure that they’re getting adequate public input and robust bidding, they avoid pitfalls like the non-compete clauses,” Pollard said. “In Hampton Roads they’ve seen a lot of ways that these PPPA deals can go wrong, and they have the authority to add these additional steps.”

We know this: The commission is to “deliver an actionable transportation plan this fall, with construction beginning on the first of the projects in 2016,” a news release from McAuliffe’s office says.

Let’s hope we get to take a peek.

Related: Virginia transportation commission can rack up ‘unlimited’ debt

Related: Transit executives have ‘limitless’ salaries

Related: Transportation commission takes detour around Legislature, taxpayer advocates warn

Contact Bre Payton at bpayton@watchdog.org or follow her on Twitter @Bre payton.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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