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When state agencies get a scolding from legislative auditors, they usually respond with a polite note expressing appreciation for the suggestions and promising to do better.
But last week the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission hit a nerve with its report on transportation planning. The Virginia Department of Transportation filed a 30-page response complete with charts, graphs and a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation.
Here’s what made VDOT go berserk:
“Opportunities exist to more fully capitalize on MPO capabilities.”
Ouch, that’s got to sting.
In other words, JLARC suggested that VDOT talk more with members of the state’s 14 metropolitan planning organizations, regional agencies established by the federal government to assist in long-term policy decisions.
To summarize VDOT’s 30-page defense: “We do so talk to the MPOs. But we’re still in charge.”
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton even suggested in his contribution to the rejoinder that the proposal would violate the state constitution. VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley added that MPOs are too slow to spend the federal money they already get and are poor at setting priorities.
That’s all fair criticism. Indeed, JLARC noted that the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization spread its share of federal stimulus funds over 30 projects, or $1.4 million per project. The state’s average was $7.9 million.
But, again, JLARC is merely asking VDOT to give MPOs a “structured opportunity to provide meaningful input on priorities.” It’s not asking the state to abdicate all responsibility to the regional groups.
The real issue is that too many transportation funding decisions are based on political considerations. Even a top VDOT official told JLARC - wisely requesting anonymity - that it “beats the heck out of me” how money is earmarked for specific projects. The regional group in Hampton Roads has been particularly loud in its complaints about the lack of transparency, and for good reason. This year the region is receiving less than 1 percent of all interstate funding, while Northern Virginia collects 92 percent.
That’s not all VDOT’s fault. State legislators and governors can’t resist meddling in decisions about new highways and bridges. Gov. Bob McDonnell surely recognizes that JLARC’s report was at least partly aimed at him and his executive predecessors, but he didn’t bristle. After all, he asked JLARC to recommend improvements to transportation planning. In contrast to the reaction from VDOT, McDonnell issued a polite press release thanking JLARC for its suggestions and promising to do better.
Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Landmark News Service