P3 reforms proposed

Published 10:31 pm Thursday, December 11, 2014

Suffolk’s Chris Jones says legislation he will carry in the House of Delegates next month would strengthen accountability and improve transparency in future deals between the state and private sector on roads and other infrastructure.

Jones said he’d been working on his own reform bill following consternation in the electorate over private bids or deals involving the Port of Virginia, Midtown Tunnel expansion and new Route 460.

“I was approached by Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, who thought it would be best if we just had one bill,” Jones said.

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Jones said the legislation he has been working on with the McAuliffe administration and stakeholders for the past six to eight weeks is yet to be finalized. But he described its main elements.

A new steering committee would vet proposals, determining which ones advance, Jones said. Exactly who would sit on it hasn’t been finalized, he said, but it would be staff members from appropriate House and Senate committees.

Proposals would be subject to a 30-day “cooling off” period, Jones said, during which the public could scrutinize them and have their say before the commonwealth signed any contract.

“One of the most important pieces, the transportation secretary would have to sign off that the terms of any final agreement are in line with what the initial terms were,” Jones

Illustrating how this function would improve the current process, Jones cited the Route 460 project’s risk shifting toward the state and away from the private sector as that deal formed.

“The 460 project started out as a P3 (public-private partnership), with the assumed risk on the private sector, to a design-build project where the state pretty much assumed all the risk,” he said.

“I think we have taken steps to address those concerns.”

The General Assembly would not vote on projects, a measure some had called for in the wakes of the port bids, tunnel project and the new 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg. But the steering committee arrangement would keep legislators apprised of proposal and negotiations along the way.

Jones said an “initial draft” of the legislation has been formed. “We have an agreement in principle — the outline of what the bill would look like,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we have to look out for the taxpayer. That is the reason I was committed to putting in a bill to reform the process.”

By the time the administration froze contract spending on the new 460 over wetlands concerns earlier this year, $300 million had been spent on what was a $1.4-billion project without any dirt moved.

State officials are expected to announce a new plan to improve the highway by the end of the year.

“The assumption is that the private sector risks are much more than the public sector’s, and that wasn’t the case with the 460 project,” Jones said.