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Chaotic start for transportation board

Published 8:33pm Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What do you get when you hand 19 politicians $200 million a year for transportation improvements in Hampton Roads?

Immediate chaos, evidenced by the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission’s struggle even to elect a chairman at its organizational meeting earlier this month.

It took nine roll-call votes before a required two-thirds majority crystallized behind Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff as leader of the board, which consists of representatives from 14 member localities and five state legislators, including Suffolk’s Chris Jones.

If passing bylaws and picking a leader caused that much division, imagine the conflict when the board actually starts spending money.

“We have got to think regionally,” State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said after the meeting. “I can’t say today was a great example of that.”

The commission sprang from a historic transportation reform package championed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell and approved by the 2013 General Assembly after decades of neglect of Virginia’s highways.

It was a sound idea: Let Hampton Roads decide how best to improve its transportation infrastructure.

Except that Hampton Roads politicians are a parochial bunch for whom regionalism is an evasive concept.

The five General Assembly members of the board, who theoretically should bring a regional focus to the body, don’t have the votes to compete with the 14 local elected officials.

Had lawmakers studied recent history, specifically the Southeastern Public Service Authority, the region’s garbage cooperative, they might have chosen a different model for the transportation commission.

SPSA was teetering on insolvency and charging member localities some of the nation’s largest tipping fees five years ago when then-state Delegate and current state Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, pushed through legislation to replace elected officials on the agency’s board with business leaders.

The change was instrumental in a dramatic turnaround for the agency.

SPSA’s eight member localities submit the names of three prospective board members to the governor, who chooses one representative from each locality. The nominees must “possess general business knowledge, and shall not be elected officials.” Appointees serve four-year terms and can serve for no more than two consecutive terms.

SPSA’s decisions “need to be made by people who understand business and the bond markets and the bottom line,” Cosgrove said at the time.

The stakes are even higher with the HRTAC, whose purview includes bonds and tolls.

Parochial leadership is a recipe for disaster.

A group of courageous state lawmakers, including Jones, made a historic investment in Virginia transportation with the 2013 funding package, which drew staunch opposition from fiscal conservatives who feared that the money would become just another slush fund for free-spending politicians.

The pressure’s on HRTAC to prove them wrong.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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