HRTAC budget funds overpasses

Published 12:05 am Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission adopted a spending plan Thursday that trims staff and advances eight regional road projects, including overpasses on Route 58 at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport and the Regional Landfill.

The operating budget for fiscal 2015 was approved by unanimous voice vote during the organization’s regular monthly meeting after a long and sometimes confusing discussion on how the projects are likely to move forward, including whether bond issuances and tolls would be involved.

Its vice chairman, Poquoson Mayor Eugene Hunt, delivered the finance committee’s report on the budget, in the absence of its chairman, Sen. Frank Wagner.

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Hunt said the majority of negative comments during a public hearing on the budget earlier this month concerned administrative and personnel costs.

The commission — established by the 2013 General Assembly to combine new tax revenue with the ability to issue bonds and set tolls to solve traffic congestion — is already at least halfway through the budget period, Hunt said.

The finance committee recommended against funding a deputy executive director and financial analyst, cutting staff costs from almost $800,000 to a little more than $520,000. The move also saves a $25,000 executive search.

Moving forward with those two appointments before an executive director is hired would be premature, Hunt said. But the executive director and chief financial officer — with compensation packages outlined in the budget of $293,684 and $164,323, respectively — are “absolutely vital,” he added.

While commission members approved the staffing tweaks, many balked at the second finance committee recommendation reported by Hunt: removing from the projects list two segments of the Interstate-64 widening, as well as the linked interchange at Ft. Eustis Boulevard.

“We don’t want to tie up this new funding stream,” Hunt said. He also said modeling and simulation is required before funds are appropriated for the projects.

The recommendation baffled some commission members, who had voted to approve the projects in the draft budget at the end of September.

Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones said he thought all three segments had been included to achieve better leverage during bidding.

Segment 1 is already in procurement, said VDOT Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick, with $44 million from the Hampton Roads Transportation Fund and an additional $100 million in state funds, while preliminary engineering work underway on Segment 2.

“If there’s any significant delay making a decision on segments 2 and 3, it will end up impacting our work,” he said. Procurement is planned to begin in spring 2015, he added.

Jones, whose suggested compromise of moving forward without Segment 3 and the interchange didn’t make it to a vote, said the commission could go to the bond market to alleviate any funding concerns.

As the discussion wore on, Suffolk’s Mayor Linda Johnson was among the baffled.

“I didn’t realize we were getting this deep into it at this point in time,” she said, adding the financing questions would be better dealt with by a financial adviser.

The commission’s first meeting since The Virginian-Pilot published an investigative story on Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms voting on dozens of matters benefiting TowneBank borrowers, while serving as president and chief executive officer of Towne Financial Services Group, also included an update on a request for a state attorney general opinion on possible conflicts of interest among voting commission members.

After citizens raised the issue in relation to the commission’s search for a financial institution to hold its funds, commission attorney Tom Inglima has requested that voting members disclose relationships with banks. Inglima and Sen. Wagner also worked together to request an opinion on the issue from the attorney general.

On Thursday, Inglima’s colleague Brett Spain reported the opinion hasn’t been returned.