Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission approves budget, tacks on new additional road projects

joneal@dailypress.com

A newly formed regional transportation organization is a step closer to officially declaring its independence.

Members of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission (HRTAC) voted unanimously Thursday to approve its fiscal year 2015 budget, which includes about $1.1 million in staffing, professional and administrative costs, and more than $1 billion in funding estimates for a number of large-scale regional road projects.

W. Eugene Hunt Jr., Poquoson mayor and HRTAC voting member, said the approved budget is to help get the new executive director, once hired, started. He said the new director is expected to present hers or his own budget for the next fiscal year to the accountability commission, which could include additional staff if needed.

Originally, the HRTAC finance committee proposed allocating $1.4 million to help launch its administrative arm, including hiring full-time executive and deputy executive directors, a chief financial officer, a financial analyst and executive assistant — totaling $795,422.

But that met with quick backlash from some residents at its recent public hearing, many saying the salaries were far too exuberant and the move was premature.

Hunt said the finance committee decided to nix the two full-time positions — a deputy executive director and a financial analyst — from the budget, bringing its new administrative overhead costs to $520,932. That's a saving of more than $274,000.

"Until we get the executive director on board, and they define what kind of services they need, we feel like it's a little premature to point out his organization for him," Hunt said.

State Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, agreed, adding that the three openings are a good starting point for the group.

"This is a bridge to where we need to get us established," Jones said.

Transportation officials also finalized its list of major regional road projects it plans to address with monies allocated from the Hampton Roads Transportation Fund.

HRTAC is charged with spending money collected from the Hampton Roads Transportation Fund: a large pot of local transportation dollars collected from sale and fuel taxes from across the region.

Year-to-date, the organization has secured $188.8 million collected from sale and fuel taxes across the region, according to a Hampton Roads Transportation Fund report.

Those funds are currently being held in an account by the Virginia Department of Treasury for a fee until the organization hires an executive director and sets up its own bank account, which could be as early as December.

Newport News and Hampton have collected the most tax revenue for the transportation fund on the Peninsula — pumping $19.9 million and $14 million, respectively, year-to-date into the account, according to the report. York County has collected $8.9 million, while James City County has funneled $8.4 million into the fund. Williamsburg collected $4.2 million in taxes dedicated to the transportation fund.

Camelia Ravenbakht, interim executive director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Commission helping oversee HRTAC administratively, said with the exception of $44 million for the first phase of the Interstate 64 widening in Newport News, no other immediate funding has been a allocated for the list of priority projects.

"This list is only emphasizing the projects that they plan to pursue with the transportation fund money," Ravenbakht said. She said once an executive director is selected, they will help HRTAC members find ways to fund the projects either through cash from the fund or bonds.

Priority projects include the widening of I-64 and the Fort Eustis interchange on the Peninsula, and the I-64-264 interchange on the Southside. Also included on the list was an environmental impact study, estimated at $5 million for the third crossing known as Patriots Crossing, as well as a $20 million environmental study and preliminary engineering for the high-rise bridge.

At the request of Virginia Beach Mayor and HRTAC voting member William D. Sessoms Jr., the board added at least $10 million for preliminary engineering and environmental work for the entire I-64 and I-264 interchange. The group also added another $5 million in preliminary engineering for the U.S. 58,13, and 460 connector in Suffolk.

O'Neal can be reached by phone at 757-247-4744.

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