Lawmakers support new Hampton Roads transportation commission

RICHMOND – A key House committee advanced two bills Tuesday that could overhaul transportation spending in Hampton Roads and across the state.

House Bill 1253 would create a new commission with the power to borrow money and implement tolls in Hampton Roads.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration says the change would inject more local control into toll deals and avoid agreements like the one that led to the tolls on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels between Portsmouth and Norfolk.

That deal, negotiated by the state, drew heavy criticism, and McAuliffe announced a shift earlier this year to lower the new tolls at the tunnels. The tolls went into effect Feb. 1.

The 21-member body would be made up of the top elected officials from each of the 14 cities and counties in the region, plus two members of the House of Delegates, one senator and four designees from various state transportation entities, including the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Virginia Port Authority.

It could hire staff, and decisions would generally require at least a two-thirds vote of the elected officials present at any given meeting.

“It creates a decision-making process run entirely by local and state elected officials,” said Dwight Farmer, director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, which puts together local transportation priorities now.

The HRTPO would continue to have planning responsibilities, but the commission would have planning duties, too. It’s unclear from the bill where one’s duties end and the other’s begin, but the commission would be able to impose tolls and borrow money to speed projects up, which the HRTPO cannot do.

The other bill, House Bill 2, also has backing from the McAuliffe administration and top GOP leaders in the House. It proposes new selection criteria for transportation projects across the state.

The idea is to assign scores to projects on several factors: easing congestion, improving safety, promoting economic development and improving accessibility or environmental quality. Hampton Roads already does something similar, but this would be a new statewide requirement, according to Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, the bill sponsor.

Local leaders would have input on which factors were most important, but the bill would require easing congestion to take the top spot in Hampton Roads.

Overall, Stolle said he wants the state to do a better job of explaining how and why it chooses to fund some projects but not others. He envisions a website that would list projects and give their scores for the various weighting factors.

“I think there’s a concern that the money’s not being spent wisely and we want to make sure that there’s a reproducible process that we can show the citizen,” he said.

The process should give the state more bang for its buck, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Farmer, the local transportation planning director, said he agrees with that assessment.

The fine print is complex, though, and transportation policy analysts are still sorting through some it.

“You still have to apply this criteria,” said Trip Pollard, an attorney who focuses on transportation for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Someone has to decide how many points do you get for (U.S. Route) 460? How many do you deduct for destroying 400 acres of wetlands?”

The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously for the bill Tuesday without asking a single question, despite Chairman Thomas Rust, R-Herndon, noting the bill’s size, importance and complexity, then inviting members to debate the bill.

Peninsula committee members Mamye BaCote, D-Newport News, Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, and David Yancey, R-Newport News, voted for the bill.

The local vote count was the same for House Bill 1253, which passed the committee easily.

Both bills head now to the House floor.

Correction: This article has been edited to note that Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, voted for house bills 2 and 1253, as opposed to not voting. Yancey was out of the room during the votes, but logged his votes with the committee clerk, according to his office.

 Published February 4, 2014 in The Daily Press