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Regional transportation group votes to hire separate executive director, staff

Members of a newly formed regional transportation organization are moving forward with an option to operate independently of two existing transit groups in Hampton Roads — a move some critics and voting members say seemed forced by state legislative factions on the board.

Voting members of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission (HRTAC) Thursday approved moving forward with the creation of a governance structure that would operate separately from the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC).

Newport News Mayor McKinley Price, Portsmouth Mayor Kenneth I. Wright and Mary K. Jones, chairwoman of the James City County Board of Supervisors, voted against the option. They felt it was too hasty to make decision that could have unwarranted costly effects to Hampton Roads' taxpayers.

The group, established by legislation signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in April, will manage and allocate regional transportation money from fuel and sales taxes. Although it has no taxing authority, the organization can also leverage those funds by issuing bonds or pursuing other borrowing strategies, such as entering into public-private partnerships and approving tolls on projects.

Year-to-date, the organization has secured $144.1 million collected from sale and fuel taxes across the region, according to a Hampton Roads Transportation Fund report.

Those funds are currently being held in an account by the Virginia Department of Treasury for a fee until the organization hires an executive director and sets up its own bank account.

Newport News and Hampton have collected the most tax revenue for the transportation fund on the Peninsula — pumping $15.4 million and $10.7 million, respectively, year-to-date into the account, according to the report. York County has collected $6.7 million, while James City County was funneled $6.4 million into the fund. Williamsburg collected $3.2 million in taxes dedicated to the transportation fund.

While serving as the funding arm for transportation projects identified by the planning organizations, HRTAC will now have its own executive director, a deputy executive director and a separate support staff that includes a chief financial officer, financial analyst and executive assistant.

Once hired, the new team will strictly report to members of the HRTAC — many who already serve on the transportation planning organization and planning district commissions.

With the vote in place, Alan P. Krasnoff, chairman of the transportation accountability commission and Chesapeake mayor, said officials can begin drafting a budget for the new division immediately.

A draft of the budget, which is estimated to cost $1.4 million annually, could be available for public comment by the group's Sept. 29 meeting.

"I'm not surprised, especially in lieu of the comments made by our legislators, " Price said of the vote. "That's the reality of politics."

Legislative strong arm?

Prior to the vote, transportation accountability members were presented two options that would help secure executive leadership for the new transportation funding division: Hire one executive director that would report to all three boards, or keep HRTAC separate from the other transportation planning groups and hire an executive director that would report to the commission.

Price said hiring one executive director that would report to all three transportation boards was a step in the right direction.

"Look at the opportunity we have with one person in charge to speak for the whole region," he said.

Wright agreed.

"I would hate to have a different executive director that is going to cost us a lot of money," Wright said. "It's going to create chaos with two different people."

State Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, disagreed, adding that when he sponsored the legislation creating the commission, it was envisioned the organization would have its own executive director and support staff.

"Three bosses for one person … I just don't see that," Jones said, later stating that legislation could be drafted when the General Assembly reconvenes Sept. 18 potentially separating the transportation divisions had the group decided to have a single executive director serve all three boards.

"This could become the [Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization], said State Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, referring to the spending power the transportation planning leg had prior to the accountability commission being created four months ago.

Price was concerned with the legislators' comments.

"We were told that this is our baby; that we're responsible," Price said. "Now, we're hearing something different. … I have concerns with the comment."

Wright put it more bluntly.

"We cannot be under a threat from Richmond," Wright said "If the legislators want to do that … take it back to Richmond."

Jones, clearly upset by the dialogue, responded.

"You have no idea what it took to get this bill passed, mayor," Jones said to a silenced crowd in the packed board room. "I'm not one to play games … we can change any bill we want. I have great concerns with one guy having three bosses. This is big league stuff."

W. Eugene Hunt Jr., board member and Poquoson mayor, later motioned to adopt option two: a second executive director and staff that would operate at the wishes of the transportation accountability commission.

"I think it's going to be set their way," Hunt said, referring to possible legislation action reversing the board's decision. "If we put this off, we're still not searching for anybody. This will give clarity to what we're looking for."

The vote to structure the new transportation accountability commission was not posted on the group's public agenda, catching some board members and attendees by surprise.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said while the commission did not violate any state meeting laws, the move could be potentially damaging as the group tries to engage the public about its goals and mission.

"It's not particularly good public policy to vote on something that's scheduled as a workshop because the public is not expecting them to vote on the item," Rhyne said. "It's not helpful to the public to change agenda or action items because the public is expecting to comment on those items."

O'Neal can be reached by phone at 757-247-4744.

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