Work together on the ports

Published 10:46 pm Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Poor fiscal management and weak-kneed negotiating tactics are not the sort of things for which Republicans would like to be known. Unfortunately for Virginia — and the Republican Party — they seem to be the true legacy of the recently departed administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The volume of newsprint dedicated to reporting on the lousy deals McDonnell negotiated for a new Tidewater tunnel crossing and a new Route 460 is only rivaled by the amount of pain those projects have brought Virginia residents. Negotiations on the former project resulted in tolls for more than a half century to come, and the deal struck on the latter project resulted in nearly $300 million spent with little likelihood of receiving federal permits and without a single shovel of dirt having been turned.

But Republicans, who like to think of themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility, received yet another unwelcome surprise from the McDonnell administration recently, when it was revealed that the Virginia Port Authority had spent itself into a $120-million hole during the past five years, despite a steady stream of announcements touting record-breaking port volume during much of that period.


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The ports picture was already bleak when Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office in January. Port Authority CEO John Reinhart, in a 2014 State of the Ports document, had reported a net loss of $85.8 million for the period, but a review by Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne revealed the deficit to be nearly 50 percent higher than Reinhart had reported.

Responding to the report, McAuliffe press secretary Rachel Thomas wrote in an email this week that the governor is considering a shake-up of the board that governs the authority.

It would not be the first time members of the ports board had been shown the door. In July 2011, McDonnell replaced 10 of 12 of the board’s members, including its former chairman. Only one of its members at the time remained on the new board, and the former governor was widely criticized by those — including McAuliffe in the ensuing years — who said the governing body of such an important commonwealth resource needed a degree of continuity that was denied by McDonnell’s action.

With the new revelation of the authority’s apparent fiscal ineptitude, the question would appear to be less one of whether the board should have been replaced than one of who should have been tapped to fill its seats. It is hard to imagine how Virginia’s ports — considered among the most accessible and technologically advanced in the nation — could lose so much money on each container they process.

One of the bad deals the McDonnell administration pursued with gusto was a partnership that would have ceded control of Virginia’s ports to a private entity. To its credit, the current Port Authority board declined the private offer. We continue to think the partnership would have been a mistake, and Virginia can thank Suffolk Delegate Chris Jones for pressing legislation that helps ensure no governor will again be able to push through a similar deal on the ports without legislative oversight.

Perhaps Virginia’s new governor can take a lesson from that fiasco, even if it means working across the aisle from a party that has much to lose from its association with the former governor, whose legacy seems to fall with every new front page.

Virginia cannot afford for its ports to be at the whim of one man sitting in the executive office. Acknowledging this fact, Gov. McAuliffe should open the lines of communication between himself and people like Chris Jones, whose knowledge and understanding of the commonwealth’s port system could ultimately help this governor bequeath a brighter legacy than that left by his predecessor.