Virginia legislators look to tinker with young HRTAC

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com
Growing pains and concerns over public comment at HRTAC.

RICHMOND — Since its inception, the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission has had growing pains.

Legislators brought some of them to the Virginia General Assembly this session, tinkering with an organization that isn't even a year old, but holds the keys to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of future transportation spending.

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, has a bill to change the way population estimates used to portion out voting power on the commission are figured. It's heading toward passage.

Legislation to allow local chief elected officials tap someone else to serve on the commission, instead of serving themselves, is not. Those bills never cleared committee.

A bill to require General Assembly approval before HRTAC could collect any tolls on projects that it approves also got left behind this session.

Now there's a legislative push to change the commission's public comment rules. Instead of only allowing public comment at the beginning of meetings, several Hampton Roads senators filed legislation to require five minutes of comment before commission votes.

The language of Senate Bill 1459 is a little unclear, but sponsors said Wednesday the goal is to have five minutes of public comment shortly before all commission votes on projects.

"These are big projects, they're costly," said state Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach.

"Little more opportunity for people who want to express their views to do so," said state Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake.

The commission was created by legislation last year to localize decisions on major transportation projects funded through regional sales and fuels taxes in Hampton Roads. Members, and members of the public, fought from the start over the body's start-up details and day-to-day operating rules.

State Sen. Frank Wagner, the HRTAC's vice chairman, sponsored Senate Bill 1459 along with Cosgrove and McWaters. But Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, abstained from voting on the bill Wednesday in committee and didn't seem to favor it.

"It took 10 votes to elect a chairman," he told fellow senators before the vote. "It took six rounds of voting before — I must have been asleep — I was elected vice chairman."

"With a comment period between each vote, I'll just let you draw your own conclusions on that," Wagner said.

The bill is sitting in the Senate Transportation Committee. After it failed to move forward Wednesday on a 7-7 vote, with Wagner abstaining, Cosgrove asked that the bill go "by for the day." That buys him more time to convince committee members to vote the bill to the full Senate floor.

That the bill was even discussed in committee Wednesday was something of an oddity. Tuesday was the general deadline for bills to pass one chamber. Senate Bill 1459 was filed late this session, which required unanimous consent from all Senate members. That also freed it from the crossover deadline, Cosgrove said.

That made it the only Senate bill on the Senate Transportation Committee's docket Wednesday. The rest were bills from the House, including Ward's bill on population estimates. It cleared the committee 14-1, with Cosgrove voting against.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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