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Road accountability group formed

Published 10:53pm Thursday, April 3, 2014

A regional transportation commission Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law on Thursday would help ensure against any repeat of tolling troubles like those surrounding the Downtown and Midtown tunnels project, Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones said.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission is tasked with determining how to invest new regional transportation money of $200 million annually.

“This is really another step in the process from last year’s transportation package,” Jones said, referring to former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s package replacing the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax with a 3.5-percent wholesale gasoline tax while boosting the sales tax, reportedly raising $800 million annually.

Anne Oman, legislative fiscal analyst with the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Jones, said the legislation “expressly gives the commission authority to issue bonds” with terms of up to 40 years.

“The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has the same provision,” Oman said, adding, “They are a year or two ahead.”

Bond issuances would be linked to tolled projects, providing revenue to repay the bonds, she said.

There would be no limits on how many bonds could be issued or the value of any issuance, Oman said, and any issuance would be “purely a decision of the commission,” without the requirement for General Assembly or Commonwealth Transportation Board approval.

The 23-member commission will be composed of Hampton Roads mayors, state legislators and Commonwealth Transportation Board members. Decisions will require a two-thirds majority vote of elected officials on the commission, representing at least two-thirds of the region’s population.

A transportation plan this fall is one of the commission’s first tasks; construction on the first of the supported projects would begin in 2016.

The Governor’s office lists Patriots Crossing, Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel expansion, High-Rise Bridge replacement, the Route 460/58/13 Connector, the I-64/I-264 interchange and widening I-64 among “high-priority projects.”

“It’s not for small projects; it’s going to be large, regional” projects, according to Jones.

One of the governor’s “high-priority” projects involves the widening of Route 58 in Suffolk, a project that has gained significance with the proliferation of warehousing and distribution centers in Suffolk.

“(Route) 58 certainly would fall within that (appropriately large and regionally-focused) category,” Jones said. “But I think it’s too early right now to say what would happen.

“We’ll have to get organized and constituted first. I would think that 58 would certainly qualify as a major project for the region, given the importance of the port.”

He said he did not know whether the commission’s formation would “increase the opportunity for 58 to be considered under this (bonding) mechanism; you are going to have to coordinate with federal, state and local (authorities).”

Jones described the commission as “more (of an) accountability and finance mechanism to ensure tolls being collected in the region are being spent wisely, and we get the most impact moving traffic.”

It was intended to “ensure we don’t have another Midtown-Downtown tunnel project built without adequate … accountability of those involved,” he said.

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