A better approach

Published 9:40 pm Tuesday, June 5, 2012

There’s a valuable lesson or two to be learned in the recent news about Gov. Bob McDonnell’s flagship project under Virginia’s Public Private Transportation Act. With construction theoretically set to begin as soon as next year on the upgraded Route 460 that McDonnell has pushed through the approval process over the objections of everyone from local residents to state legislators, many of the most important details about the project still seem to be in flux.

Within the past week, for instance, state transportation officials have announced that expected tolls would be cut nearly in half from what has been pitched for years. The reductions are possible because the commonwealth has changed the proposal to take more of the long-term risk associated with it, has agreed to be in charge of the road’s maintenance and has reduced the length of time the private partners would be allowed to collect toll revenues.

The idea was to bring down the cost to travelers using the new road and therefore increase the volume of traffic diverted to it from the old, free Route 460. Finally, after years of folks telling them so, transportation officials realized that the originally proposed tolls were just too high for the new road to be financially viable, so they agreed to a change in the plan.

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The first lesson is that Virginia’s engineers — and, more importantly, her governor — should listen to Virginians when they express their concerns about such proposed projects.

This isn’t the only proposed public-private partnership that has drawn criticism from those who will be most affected by it. And just as McDonnell’s administration ignored the cries of those who warned about the problems with the Route 460 project, it has ignored those who have raised flags of caution regarding the partnership to provide a new crossing over the Elizabeth River.

Residents of every city in Hampton Roads have complained about the high cost of those tolls, the sweetheart deal the private conglomerate would receive from the state government, the unfair burden the agreement will place on the people of Tidewater and the blind hurry with which the administration has approached the project.

Which brings up another, perhaps more important, lesson that should be taken from the Route 460 project’s recent announcements: It’s wise in these partnerships to take a little extra time to make sure the deal that’s finally signed is the right deal to make.

Considering the McDonnell administration’s rush to force a solution to the traffic gridlock of Hampton Roads, it may well be too late to take the sober approach to this partnership that is suggested by the recent experience with the Route 460 project. But it’s not too late for the legislature to take notice and introduce some sanity into the PPTA by amending it to require a more measured approach with better public oversight.