10/22/2008Virginia County Revolts Over HOT Lane Deal
Prince William County, Virginia County Executive leads the charge against potential for financial bailouts in proposed HOT lane deal.
Virginia's second-largest county yesterday fired the first shot in what is likely to be an ongoing revolt over a state plan to toll existing lanes on an interstate freeway. The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted 7-0, with one abstention, to approve an ordinance demanding that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) answer a series of tough questions regarding its proposed transfer of the Interstate 95/395 High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to Transurban for the purposes of converting them into toll lanes.
"Frankly, I think that it's incumbent upon us, since so many of our residents are dependent on the HOV lanes in the morning and in the evening, that we request that VDOT and representatives of Transurban appear," Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart said.
The ordinance enumerated the board's concerns which centered on the potential situations where Virginia taxpayers would be forced to provide a financial "bailout" for the Australian tolling company if the HOT lane concept does not perform as promised. Stewart pointed to the warning of Fitch Ratings, which in August downgraded its assessment of the credit risks associated with tolling to "negative." VDOT's proposed deal would be binding on the residents of Virginia for the next eighty years, during which time economic conditions could change dramatically.
Stewart also compared Transurban to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by pointing out the multi-million dollar compensation packages and golden parachutes that the company's top executives enjoy. Just like the failed mortgage giants, Transurban is highly leveraged and uses campaign donations to shape public policy. In Transurban's case, the illegal contributions to the governor and members of the General Assembly were returned.
"The whole point of this is, we cannot trust Transurban," Stewart said. "We should, at a minimum, exercise some due diligence here and make them accountable to the government whose residents will be tremendously and I think negatively affected."
Stewart condemned VDOT's lack of candor about the many complicated aspects of the project which will change the way commuters travel to and from work each day. According to the ordinance, this problem is compounded by the process under which the proposal is being implemented.
"There will be no vote by the current General Assembly, nor by any other elected official or body directly accountable to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia to approve the project," the ordinance states.
The resolution also calls on VDOT to produce documents, including all of its correspondence with Transurban and the governor's office, regarding the HOT lane project. Representatives from VDOT and Transurban are asked to appear before a special public meeting no later than February 2009. A copy of the resolution is attached in a 250k PDF file at the source link below.