Report: VDOT gains unprecedented power

Gov. Bob McDonnell intervened at the 11th hour of the General Assembly’s 2012 regular session to push through a major power shift on transportation and land use planning in Virginia, a smart-growth planning group says.

After reportedly calling in a handful of legislators for last minute negotiations, his omnibus transportation bill (HB1248/SB639) squeaked through the Senate on Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tie-breaking vote late in the evening on the last day of the session.

The bill grants the state extensive powers to force transportation projects into community plans, and penalize local governments who don’t support those projects. And it is likely to further reduce funding for primary, secondary and urban roads upon which local communities depend. It also takes a step toward “devolution,” saddling those governments with responsibility for the costs of secondary roads.

“The governor’s bill will give the engineers in the Virginia Department of Transportation, the unelected Secretary of Transportation and the unelected Commonwealth Transportation Board unprecedented power over local elected officials and communities,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Under the bill, localities must conform to their comprehensive plans to reflect projects selected by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. If a locality fails to do so, the board can take funds away from the project in that locality and transfer them elsewhere. Further, if a locality or region ultimately does not support a project, the CTB can demand reimbursement from the local government and taxpayers for any funds VDOT has spent on the project.

“We believe that these provisions will allow VDOT and the CTB to punish local governments and communities for raising legitimate objections to a project because of its harmful impacts or for supporting alternative routes or solutions that VDOT doesn’t agree with,” said Dan Holmes of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “Never has ‘It’s my way or the highway’ been more true.”

The bill also creates a new formula for allocating road funds, taking up to $500 million and thereby reducing money for critical primary, secondary and urban road projects. The new formula diverts yet more money to private toll road projects (beyond the $1.5 billion provided in 2011 legislation). A separate provision for directing an increased share of any General Fund surplus to transportation also allows the funds to go to sub-funds of the state Transportation Trust Fund, such as funding for Public Private Transportation Act projects. Finally, another provision appears to takes a step towards “devolution” by having revenue sharing funds which had been directed to local capital improvements to be diverted to local road maintenance needs.

“The state has been backing away from its responsibility to build and maintain local roads – the primary, secondary and urban roads that are so critical to our rural communities, towns, cities and suburbs,” said Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “At the same time, the Governor has directed more and more dollars to subsidies for private developers to build toll road projects that aren’t always in the public interest. This hastily-crafted compromise is likely to reinforce these trends.”.

“Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, or a local or state elected official, you should be concerned both about the degree of centralization of power in VDOT and the push by the Governor and Secretary of Transportation to shift significant funds to private toll road projects at the expense of many other needs,” said Lisa Guthrie of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

“We believe that local communities and our elected officials should have a right to shape the future of their communities, to offer alternative transportation solutions, and to object to projects which might have unduly negative impacts on their neighborhoods. VDOT and the unelected CTB should not have unchecked power,” concluded Roger Diedrich of the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter.

The groups are urging the governor to amend the bill to fix the significant problems with the last minute legislation.


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