Good changes for the PPTA

Published 10:00 pm Friday, December 12, 2014

One of the first and most important orders of business for the Virginia General Assembly when it convenes in January will be an overhaul of the commonwealth’s abused and battered Public-Private Transportation Act, which was established as a means by which major transportation and other infrastructure “P3” projects could be completed under Public-Private Partnerships.

The act dates to the latter part of the 20th century, when the state legislature began to notice that important transportation priorities were going unmet because of the inability or unwillingness of the General Assembly to fund them through tax dollars and tolls. Getting private investment in the projects, it was reasoned, would shift some of the risk of those projects to the private sector and reduce the burden on taxpayers by giving interested companies the long-term financial incentive to help pay for projects in the short term.

P3 might have worked in some places and on some projects, but the process failed taxpayers utterly when former Gov. Bob McDonnell decided to use it to force unpopular and expensive projects on Hampton Roads, while denying the General Assembly any oversight of the contracts or their costs.

Email newsletter signup

Among the results was a commuter-crushing 56-year contract with the company that is collecting ever-increasing tolls in exchange for work on various river crossings in Hampton Roads. Another result was $300 million spent on a project to improve Route 460 that never progressed to the stage of turning soil. And finally, McDonnell’s abuse of the P3 process nearly cost Virginia control of one of its most important economic assets, the Port of Virginia.

Given the way the PPTA was misused by the McDonnell administration — and especially the way the governor used it to remove elected leaders from oversight of the contractual process on projects that would cost billions in taxes and tolls — there was little or no chance it could be used again for substantive transportation projects in Virginia without some new safeguards being erected.

Fortunately, both the legislature and the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe have made updating the legislation a top priority for the coming legislative session, and Suffolk Delegate Chris Jones (R-76th) is at the center of the negotiations over the necessary changes. He and Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane have come together to work out a plan that would preserve this important alternative for funding and completing major infrastructure projects, while preserving the even more important concepts of legislative oversight, separation of powers, checks and balances and fiscal restraint.

It’s still too early to know exactly how the new PPTA will look, but early indications seem to indicate that all parties have come to the commonsense understanding that one man should not be allowed to have the power to circumvent the people and their elected representatives in pursuit of his own agenda. That’s a good start.