Jones blasts PPTA

Published 10:02 pm Thursday, December 6, 2012

Delegate submits bills to restructure process

Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act is broken and hurting the people of Hampton Roads, Delegate S. Chris Jones (R-76th) told supporters during a pre-legislative session breakfast meeting on Thursday.

The commonwealth’s PPTA is being used as the framework for a new Midtown Tunnel tube, for a new Route 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg and for the proposed long-term lease of Virginia’s ports to a private company.

The first two projects would require significant public investment, along with tolls paid to the private companies that would maintain and operate the roads involved. Tolls are set to become active at Hampton Roads’ existing Elizabeth River crossings in January 2014, three years before completion of the new tunnel.

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“That first day, when you pay (the) $1.59 (toll), you’ll see what the PPTA has brought Hampton Roads,” Jones said at Thursday’s meeting, held at Harbour View’s Hilton Garden Inn.

Jones fought last year for a change to the deal between Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration and Elizabeth River Crossings, the consortium that is partnering with the state on the project and has been guaranteed profits under the agreement.

He lost that fight, Jones said Thursday, and there’s nothing the legislature or the people of Hampton Roads can do to stop the deal from moving forward, despite the overwhelming opposition it has faced on all fronts since details first became public knowledge.

The same thing looks to be happening with the deal to build a new Route 460, said Jones, who predicted a deal between the Virginia Department of Transportation and an international conglomerate would be inked before legislators convene Jan. 9.

That 55-mile project will require the infusion of about $1.2 billion in cash from the commonwealth, in addition to tolls projected as high as $11.72 starting in 2018 and rising by 3.5 percent each year, according to project documents.

The state money earmarked for Route 460, Jones said, could have made a huge difference in the projected tolls for the river crossings.

“It was a mistake to put that $1.2 billion into (Route) 460, instead of the tunnels,” he said.

McDonnell’s administration, however, has been fixed on pushing through the Route 460 improvements. Meanwhile, Jones said, traffic problems and road conditions in the core part of Hampton Roads continue to deteriorate.

“We’ve got about $10 billion in (transportation) needs in Hampton Roads, and the answer is not in tolling everybody’s driveway,” he said. “And if we don’t fix transportation, we in Hampton Roads have the most to lose of anybody in Virginia.”

The state’s Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 was intended to help solve those problems, he said, but it has wrested control of state infrastructure from the hands of Virginia officials and given it to private concerns.

A proposal by APM Virginia to take over operations at the Port of Virginia highlights the problem, Jones said.

In May, the subsidiary of Danish shipping giant Maersk submitted a proposal to take over the ports’ operation for 48 years. If not for the intervention of legislators and an outcry from the public and the shipping industry, Jones said, the deal would have been done and effective short-term ownership of the commonwealth’s ports transferred to the company by the end of this month.

“I want to try to bring what I call some sanity to the process,” he said, noting that he has submitted bills that would take away the ability of companies to submit unsolicited bids for assets like Virginia’s ports and would put the entire process of transportation funding and public-private partnerships under legislative review.

“The PPTA was supposed to help us build roads,” he said.

Jones hopes to get his fellow legislators to assign a joint legislative committee to examine the state’s transportation funding formula. An overhaul of that formula is overdue, he said, “but we can’t do a comprehensive fix in 60 days.”

Such a study could examine gas taxes, sales taxes and other potential revenue streams to ensure that VDOT receives the “$850 million to $1.3 billion” a year officials project is required for the commonwealth’s highway and mass transit construction needs.

Right now, he added, “The metrics don’t look very good for Hampton Roads.”