Reform: Step one

Standing in the shadow of the Springfield Interchange, Gov. Mark Warner signed one of the first but hopefully not the last bills aimed at reforming the way roads are funded and built in the commonwealth of Virginia.

The new law is the beginning of major reform needed at the Virginia Department of Transportation a state agency that politicians from both parties admit was rife with mismanagement and political decay. The bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Warner requires VDOT to adopt detailed financial plans for all projects costing more than $100 million. This includes cost estimates and the identification of specific funding sources.

Facing a daunting task of more costly highway projects and political pressure from politicians, VDOT’s system of planning road construction became more fantasy than fact the past 10 years. Some lawmakers and local government officials had complained that it was tough to get a straight answer from VDOT on the cost of certain projects or where that money was coming from.

The Mixing Bowl has become a symbol of VDOT bumbling with the project’s cost spiraling from $350 million to its present $700 million… and counting.

The new law will hopefully avoid predicaments encountered by Warner last year when he looked at the VDOT six-year plan and tossed it aside, calling it a work of fiction.

The main problem with VDOT was cost overruns, shaky cash flow and political demands. Roads and bridges get politicians reelected and it was important for the highway department to schedule construction for highway projects even if money for that project was elusive.

Hopefully in the future, VDOT and our government officials will have the integrity to tell us when a project has been delayed due to a lack of money, or when a project begins to creep over budget.

Will the signing of this bill prevent future price tag scandals that currently plague the Mixing Bowl? Probably not. True reform is only as effective as the public officials who preside over the commonwealth’s transportation system. This includes governors, lawmakers and bureaucrats. Future lapses in judgment or complacent decisions by state leaders will supply fertile ground for future cost eruptions.

Hopefully this law will be followed by others that reform VDOT’s transportation districts which are based on Depression-era congressional districts. The state also needs to reform its “primary” and “secondary” highway designations while also putting the Transportation Trust Fund off limits for other government uses.

VDOT reform was an effective campaign promise. Execution of this promise is the thing of which legacies are made.

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