A 'paradise' amid the rocks and weeds
The Baltimore Sun

The only way forward

We remain bullish on the promise of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, despite some coughing and sputtering since its formation. The group was created to handle the funding for the region's most pressing road projects, and we are confident that its membership can responsibly rise to the task.

There have been a few missteps as HTAC has begun its work. And, as with other regional commissions, there is a genuine fear the organization will fracture along community lines, scuttling any hope of building the consensus needed to tackle the congestion and inadequate infrastructure plaguing the area.

However, Hampton Roads motorists — even those who began yet another work week in a slow crawl along Interstate 64 or through one of the bridge-tunnels —are nothing if not patient. We expect HTAC members to work with all deliberate speed, and to do so cooperatively, to help alleviate our traffic woes and build a region where travel is no longer an exercise in frustration.

The landmark transportation bill negotiated by former Gov. Bob McDonnell and passed by the General Assembly last year represented a milestone for the commonwealth and the region. The bill replaced the per-gallon tax on gasoline with a wholesale tax on motor fuel and a higher sales tax to fund construction projects sought for a generation.

In Hampton Roads, the legislation will provide about $8 billion to use for road projects in the next 25 years. It is a key part of $25 billion in transportation funds the region is expected to receive between now and 2040.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation creating HTAC to manage the money. The group consists of the top elected officials in the district's 14 localities and five state legislators, who have voting power, and other transportation officials who participate in discussion.

HTAC's responsibility is generally limited to money management. In essence, it's the region's "bank" for transportation projects. It can issue bonds to leverage funds, set tolls and enter into public-private partnerships, but transportation priorities are set by the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization Board.

But the HTAC stumbled getting out of the blocks. The board met prior to the July 1 date its authorizing legislation took effect. Called an orientation meeting, the group was not yet a public body and therefore not required to provide public notice of its gathering.

For an organization controlling billions in public revenue, it was a discouraging start. It gave rise to fears that lawmakers had created yet another ineffective regional body incapable of making the tough decisions or delivering on its promises.

At HTAC's first meeting, we saw the fracturing so familiar among regional efforts in Hampton Roads. It took the commission nine votes before electing Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff at its chairman. He strikes us as a capable leader, but we would have welcomed members giving him a stronger vote of confidence.

Then, at its retreat last week, members split over whether to hire an executive director and to operate separately from the HRTPO and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. Though lawmakers envisioned HTAC as an independent group, some thought placing the three transportation organizations under one umbrella would be the best option.

Such discord is hardly uncommon in a new group. However, we have seen too many promising attempts at regional cooperation scuttled by similar squabbles. Groups like this, staffed by elected officials beholden only to their constituents, are almost primed for failure unless they subordinate local interests to the collective good.

And, when it comes to transportation projects, together is the only way forward. Newport News or Hampton cannot widen I-64 alone, nor can Norfolk or Portsmouth build a third crossing without regional cooperation. The only path to progress is working collaboratively — and HTAC is the partnership constructed for that very goal.

The traffic tie-ups in Hampton Roads cost the region an estimated $700 million annually. They discourage tourism, affect economic development and diminish residents' quality of life. The people of this region have waited long enough — most of it idling in their cars — to see progress on transportation.

HTAC's early stumbles are hardly fatal, but we would be reassured to see things running smoother from here on out.

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