EDITORIAL: Taking a licking

Va.’s P3 venture suffers a hit with Portsmouth ruling

July 12, 2013

Look! Free suckers!

Oh, wait, hold on . . . yeah, if free is another word for a quarter—and one that will have the power to help fight muscular dystrophy no less—then go ahead and take one. This false hope of sugary goodness can be seen at the front counter of restaurants all over the country. For some reason, they do a fine job camouflaging the donation requirement with the forest of lollipops. Just when you think you have something for nothing, it quickly becomes cash on demand. Of course, every so often you come across the freebies that aren’t so needy. “Have a mint on us, and if you are in the mood flip a quarter our way.” Those displays always seem to have more empty candy slots than full money jugs.

Perhaps this is how the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) should have handled the new tunnel project underneath the Elizabeth River. Collection baskets could have been placed before the existing Downtown/Midtown tunnels asking for donations for the new crossing. For those who did not want to drop change, they could still enjoy the concrete goodness of the tube, as well as the time efficiency of crossing under a body of water. You’re right, nobody would have sharp enough aim to toss the charitable offering at high speed, and I am pretty certain that would be the only obstacle facing this lame brain of an idea.

VDOT did think it was the right move to toll those using the Downtown/Midtown tunnels, as well as the MLK Expressway, to help pay for a new line, so it demanded the charge, with 17% of the proceeds going toward current construction. When complete, the second route will have a 58-year lease tied to it, with all charges going to Australian infrastructure company Macquarie and Skanska in exchange for a $208 million initial investment. For the next five decades or so, Macquarie is expected to bring in $5 billion, but more on that sucker deal in a moment.

A Portsmouth Circuit Court judge shot down this crooked financial boomerang in May, calling the act of charging a toll on something that was already paid for unconstitutional in the state of Virginia. The judge said the General Assembly is the only one with the power of instituting this “tax” on the people, and that power did not belong to VDOT. In late June, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear an expedited appeal.

I don’t know how the Supreme Court could reverse this decision. If it is indeed chiseled into the constitution, and the Circuit Court judge did reference Article 4, Section 14, then it is going to take an amendment to shift this so-called taxing authority over to VDOT. I’m not so sure the politicians would be willing to bring that change to a vote, because after all, the beauty mark attracting lawmakers to public-private partnerships is the ability to wash their hands of any toll decisions open to voter ridicule.

Some are saying Virginia’s P3 program is in jeopardy if this judicial super power upholds the initial ruling. The state has a few P3 projects/examples around the region, and the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel project carries a different tune, and the note that has made everybody’s skin crawl is the tolling of an existing facility. The traditional approach of P3s is to toll after construction is complete.

Now back to the sucker punch I threw earlier. I want to know who was behind the arrangement that would allow a private consortium to bathe in a lavish jackpot totaling about $5 billion. I know you must attract those with fists full of dollars, but if you had made Macquarie/Skanska shell out the entire cost of the venture (about $2.1 billion) they still would most likely come out ahead by a $2.9 billion sum. All the agency needed to say was, “Look! Free money!” R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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