From wire and staff

CHARLOTTESVILLE – A study released Monday questions the public benefit of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act and recommends the General Assembly play a greater role in overseeing the road-building process.

The Southern Environmental Law Center study says private-public road projects have come to dominate too much in road building.

“The PPTA is flawed, and this report raises significant doubts about how effectively it serves the public interest,” Trip Pollard, a SELC spokesman, said in the statement. “Taxpayers are footing the bill for many PPTA project costs, while the public picks up the rest of the tab through tolls. All too often, the deals have been cut to allow profits to be put ahead of sound transportation planning.”

The PPTA was intended only to supplement the traditional publicly funded approach in a  cost-effective way.

“As people saw funding for transportation beginning to get tightened,” Pollard said, “the thought was, well, here’s one more tool in the toolbox to attract private funding and help build these projects that might not be built otherwise.”

But Pollard said the PPTA has gone well beyond its original intent. Instead of funding occasional projects, public-private partnerships have become the standard for large scale projects, he said.

Four PPTA projects have been completed since the law’s implementation in 1995. But 18 more are partially completed, currently under construction, under contract or under consideration.

Pollard added that a lack of oversight and transparency are huge concerns, especially with the way taxpayer dollars’ are spent.

“We’re not opposed to use of public-private partnerships,” he said. “But they need to be structured in a way that protects the public’s interest.”

The report says that the consortiums “understandably negotiate to reduce their risk, with as high a return as possible, over as long a time period as possible.

“This evolution in the use of PPTA should not be surprising given the private sector’s motivation to maximize return within a low-risk environment.”

As a result, the report questions whether the partnerships are producing projects “with as low a price as possible” and whether environmental impacts of transportation projects are being fully considered.

Among the report’s findings:

• More transportation decisions are made by fewer people who serve at the pleasure of the governor.

• The National Environmental Policy Act should be a “starting point” for any transportation project.

• Even though PPTA guidelines stress the need for competition, that is not always the result.



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