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Road Warrior 

In an exclusive interview, Virginia's transportation czar unveils a plan to fix an ailing highway system.

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Sean T. Connaughton knows something about what peeves Virginia motorists the most: work commutes that crawl along at a snail's pace.

When he worked in Washington, Connaughton needed 55 minutes to drive 35 miles from his home in Prince William County. Now that he's Virginia's secretary of transportation, he drives 75 minutes in the other, less-trafficked direction to his office in downtown Richmond's Patrick Henry Building. “It's easier but I have to get up at 5 a.m. to do it,” he says.

His new job puts him squarely in the driver's seat of one of the most troubled parts of state government. Virginia faces growing highway congestion in all of its metro areas, yet the state has no new funds to confront it. Recession has cut tax revenues and the state faces a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Yet Gov. Bob McDonnell and fellow Republican legislators are loath to raise taxes.

It's now up to Connaughton to rationalize the state's badly skewed transportation policies where construction funds must spill into maintenance that's often done piecemeal. As a former Coast Guard and Navy officer and former head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, Connaughton comes off as a cool professional on McDonnell's team. He stands in marked contrast to passionate conservative ideologues such as Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, whose lawsuits and opinions have brought the state negative national publicity.

Money isn't exactly the main problem, Connaughton tells Style Weekly in one of the administration's first interviews on policy issues. Of its annual $3.8 billion transportation budget, the state allots about $1 billion for infrastructure. “But right now we have money for construction that isn't moving through the pipeline,” Connaughton says. “So we're trying to understand why.”

To find out, the McDonnell administration has launched a series of audits of the Virginia Department of Transportation. In addition, Connaughton says he wants to find out why state and federal transportation planning often runs at cross purposes, and on different schedules, and why it takes so long to complete typical construction projects.

One example is the plan for so-called hot lanes on Interstates 395 and 95 south of Washington, which offer motorists expedited rush-hour access for an extra fee. Connaughton complains that he was hearing about the project eight years ago when he was chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors — “and we still haven't gotten to a comprehensive agreement.”

Another question mark involves federal money for higher-speed rail. Politicians and the Richmond business elite had big plans to snag a big chunk of the $8.5 billion offered for passenger rail by President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reconstruction Act. They dreamed of fast passenger trains that would whisk them from downtown to D.C. in 90 minutes.

But this year, Virginia got a paltry $75 million while North Carolina got $545 million. One reason is that North Carolina has been working on higher-speed rail much longer than the Old Dominion and has a more sophisticated program. And even though the two states have a compact for cooperation on the issue, “they have never met about it,” says Connaughton, who said he was taking a trip to Raleigh earlier this week, April 26.

Connaughton, an expert in ship transportation, says one cure for the near-bankrupt, city-owned Port of Richmond would be to have it work with the Virginia Port Authority. Doing so could provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade the port, he says, which has lost its biggest shipper, and also take container trucks off crowded highways such as Interstate 64.

As head of the U.S. Maritime Administration during George W. Bush's presidency, Connaughton expanded the use of barges to haul freight on U.S. inland waterways, such as the James River and Chesapeake Bay, to help unclog highways. By being part of the Virginia Port Authority, lots of customs and other paperwork could be done in Richmond with the containers moved by barge down the James River.

The port authority has operated an inland port in Front Royal near the Blue Ridge Mountains for years, he notes. There, trucks hauling containers enter the facility near Interstate 81 where the loads are processed for customs and other paperwork. They're hauled by rail to Hampton Roads. Doing so has created thousands of jobs in the Front Royal area at distribution centers operated by large retail chains. Jobs could also be created in the Richmond area in such a way, he says. Connaughton has also initiated talks about the port's future with city officials.

Other policies that could affect Richmond are a little dicey. Connaughton cites a plan to address one of the most dangerous sections of the state's interstate highway system, from Richmond to Petersburg. To fix it and generate new revenues, McDonnell wants to add toll booths at Interstates 85 and 95 near the North Carolina border.

Doing so can be a legal hassle because revenue from those tolls can only be used for maintenance on those particular interstate roads. The state would need federal approval and might have to use uncertain pilot programs to get it, a source says. Connaughton says the funds could be used to fix the Richmond-Petersburg corridor.

When it comes to building new highways, Connaughton, like many Republicans, is punting. Because the state has no money for new roads, he has high hopes for the state's Public Private Transportation Act to help build them. McDonnell says he wants a new, private toll road under way by this summer that would connect Petersburg and Hampton Roads along the current U.S. 460 route.

“We believe we will have a [program] that will move this project forward that will not require any state or federal financial involvement,” Connaughton says. “They are consulting lawyers right now. We would have essentially a true private toll road.” And, he says he'll continue talks to privatize the Virginia Port Authority and its sprawling complex of deep-water container facilities in Hampton Roads.

Yet public-private projects haven't always worked.

The scheme was used to build Pocahontas Parkway — state Route 895, in eastern Henrico County. So few motorists used it that it wasn't generating enough toll revenue to pay off the debt, and the state almost lost its pristine credit rating as a result. The state then turned the project over to Transurban, an Australian company, which continues to own and operate 895.

Moreover, smart-growth advocates say that simply building new highways without much thought to land-use planning will do nothing other than exacerbate the problems caused by a car-centric society, ultimately wasting enormous amounts of fuel, promoting sprawling suburbs, retail and commercial development. Connaughton says he's aware of the concerns and will employ smart growth ideas “where they make sense.”

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