Reason prevails

Published 10:55 pm Thursday, July 12, 2012

In the end, reason prevailed.

In a bit of a surprise to those Virginians who have come to expect the McDonnell administration to utterly ignore them on matters related to the commonwealth’s Public Private Transportation Act, the state’s highest-ranking transportation officials this week put the brakes on the headlong rush toward a deal of historic proportions over the ownership and operation of Virginia’s port facilities.

Waiting until the 11th hour to do so, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton postponed the deadline for alternatives to the unsolicited bid by APM Terminals Inc. to run Virginia’s port system in exchange for giving the state ownership of its massive Portsmouth facility, along with cash payments and incentives.

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APM says its offer is worth $3.9 billion. That’s hard for even shipping experts to confirm, and it depends on a lot of factors that were not likely to be made obvious within the arbitrary 50-day deadline the Department of Transportation originally set for other companies to submit competing proposals. Fifty days, to paraphrase Delegate Chris Jones (R-64th), is hardly enough time to put together a proposal to sell a small business, much less an entire statewide industry.

It was inconceivable that such a deadline would give competing shipping companies adequate time to put together reasonable and well-researched counter-offers. Without such counter-offers, Virginia and the taxpayers who ultimately would foot the bill for any mistake in this business deal would face huge risks, having effectively put complete trust in APM’s promises that it was offering the best deal.

Taking APM’s deal without giving adequate time for other companies to respond would have been similar to turning over the deed to one’s home to someone who has randomly knocked on the door and made an offer. Maybe it’s a good offer, but you’ll never know unless you take the time to check it out before endorsing the check.

It’s hard to conceive that Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has become a leader of the Republican Party on the national level and something of a darling to fiscal conservatives and business leaders, would not understand this simple fact about capitalism: Competition benefits the consumer. In the case of the ports deal, competition will almost surely benefit the taxpayer, as Virginia will either improve upon the conditions of APM’s deal or accept it as it stands. Either way, there’s little for Virginia to lose by extending the deadline for competing proposals, and there’s much to gain.

The gnawing question that remains as the commonwealth awaits the new Aug. 13 deadline for proposals is this: Why did it take so long to convince this conservative governor and his staff of the application of such basic free market principals to the ports deal?