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Posted at 11:23 AM ET, 06/ 8/2010

Va. transportation: Is 'public-private' the answer?

By Peter Galuska

The Post had an insightful editorial this past Sunday about how Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell's ideas for covering some $20 billion in transportation shortfalls fall short.

McDonnell had hoped for $77 million a year from offshore drilling, but that questionable idea is obviously a nonstarter after the Gulf of Mexico blowout. Selling off ABC stores and putting up tolls on the southern approaches to Interstates 85 and 95 would be, at best, drops in the bucket, revenue-wise.

As has his predecessors, McDonnell is also turning to the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 in the hope that private equity and management can solve some of the state's problems. Virginia has one of the more advanced PPTA laws in the country, and it has helped fund intersections on Route 28 and HOT lanes on parts of the Beltway and Pocahontas Parkway, a superhighway connector and bridge near Richmond.

Now McDonnell wants to use the PPTA to build a superhighway along U.S. 460 from Petersburg to Hampton Roads and to rebuild tunnels in the Norfolk area.

How well has PPTA really worked? One answer comes from KPMG Corporate Finance, which has finished a $100,000 study on public-private projects in the state. Its recommendations are good ones, noting that Virginia needs to use PPTA for more "multi-modal" transportation such as light rail instead of just for highways. It needs to follow examples in Ireland, Ontario and Texas, where a unified government agency tracks PPTA proposals and makes sure that the bids are competitive and that the contracting process is efficient.

There is a fallacy with PPTA, however. In a tax-cheap state like Virginia, there is an idea that one can always get something for nothing by turning to the magic of the free market.

Sounds good, but the project has to be sustainable. The Pocahontas Parkway, for instance, was built not to address congestion but to facilitate sprawl eastward into farmland areas that politicians and developers wanted access to. When the Parkway was built,so few motorists used it that toll revenue didn't reach needed levels. It almost went bust. That would have hurt Virginia's pristine Triple-A credit rating, so then-Gov. Mark Warner scrambled to find a fix by turning things over to an Australian manager.

PPTA can boost transportation -- but only if the planning makes sense.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon's Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Peter Galuska  | June 8, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County, HotTopic, Prince William County, Va. Politics, Virginia, development, economy, energy, environment, real estate, taxes, traffic, transportation  
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