McAuliffe drives transportation change

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, May 30, 2015

by Aubrey Layne

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top priority is growing a stronger and more diverse Virginia economy. Achieving that goal will require a significant improvement and expansion of Virginia’s transportation system, particularly in Northern Virginia.

Gov. McAuliffe directed me to employ three guiding principles in delivering his vision for transportation in the commonwealth: smart governance, accountability and transparency.

Many Virginia governors began their terms with the promise to fix transportation by reforming the Virginia Department of Transportation. While every government agency can always perform more efficiently, Gov. McAuliffe is focusing on how decisions about projects are made.

Transportation planning should be about reducing congestion, increasing economic activity and improving Virginians’ quality of life. Unfortunately, those considerations often take a backseat to the political or legacy considerations of one administration or another.

To maximize the return Virginians get on every dollar they put into transportation, we must select the right projects at the right time for the whole commonwealth. “Reforming VDOT” one more time will not cover up the need for stronger, smarter, non-political governance of our transportation planning system.

If we want to improve the governance of Virginia’s transportation system, we must make decisions based on sound data, not politics. The General Assembly acted in 2013 to provide new funding for transportation in Virginia.

Gov. McAuliffe began his term working with Republicans such as House Speaker William Howell of Stafford and delegates S. Chris Jones of Suffolk, Thomas Davis Rust of Fairfax and Christopher P. Stolle of Virginia Beach to build a system that invests efficiently and holds decision makers accountable for their actions.

In 2014, the governor signed House Bill 2, which establishes a consistent and data-driven “prioritization” process to score projects according to critical transportation needs. This process will serve as a valuable tool for members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board by providing information on the value of each project to Virginia’s economy as they weigh funding. It also will make the CTB and other transportation officials more accountable to the public for those decisions.

Simply put, transportation prioritization is about examining each project’s benefit to Virginia by the numbers, and funding the right ones first.

Building on that success, this year the governor and I worked with Delegate Jones and Delegate Rust to enact legislation reforming Virginia’s transportation funding formula to give regions more influence over their own transportation futures.

It also strengthens the CTB and makes it more independent by requiring the governor to show proper cause before removing a board member. This will minimize political pressure when making decisions on selecting and funding projects.

As we revamped our transportation funding structures, the McAuliffe administration and the General Assembly also worked to reform how Virginia funds transportation projects through public-private partnerships. In the wake of several poorly negotiated projects in which taxpayers were left holding the bag, this new law will help ensure that Virginians reap the benefits that such projects can offer, while better spreading risk between the public and private sectors.

This bill establishes a process to identify high-risk public-private projects so we can mitigate risk or keep Virginia out of bad deals. It also increases accountability by requiring the secretary of transportation to sign a statement indicating that a project is in the public interest and that the risk of adverse consequences has been properly distributed.

If things go wrong, Virginians will no longer have to wonder who decided to move forward on a bad project.

Virginians work hard for the money they send to Richmond to fund transportation projects. Government has a responsibility to ensure taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely and in a way that makes their lives better.

Transparency is at the very heart of strengthening the governance of Virginia’s transportation system. Each transportation bill passed during the McAuliffe administration is centered on making better decisions based on better information and increasing the public’s access to that information.

We have worked across party lines to put laws in place that transform how Virginia plans, funds and executes transportation projects. The next step is building a transportation system on those laws that uses every single taxpayer dollar to ease congestion, stimulate economic growth and improve Virginians’ quality of life. There is no question that much work remains to be done, but we are off to a great start.

Aubrey Layne is the Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia. A version of this column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.