Charlottesville Right Now, Thursday, May 30, 2013
Jim Rich, a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, shares his thoughts on the Western Bypass.
WINA Host: Coy Barefoot
GUEST: Jim Rich
COY: It is an honor to begin this program today to welcome Jim Rich to the conversation. He joins us live on the program. Jim, I can’t thank you enough for making time for us. I know you are very, very busy and we certainly appreciate you joining the little show. Thank you very much.
JIM: Oh, Coy, and thank you for all the good work that you do down there.
COY: Jim, as a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board and was, how do we put this delicately, Jim? There’s no delicate way to put it. You were fired because you…
JIM: Yeah, that’s true.
COY: …were the lone dissenter and raising questions and opposing any resurrection of the Western Bypass in Albemarle County.
JIM: That’s correct.
COY: Tell us that story. Take us behind the scenes. Tell us why you opposed this, why you were one of the people at the table, making the decision, and the Governor and the Secretary of Transportation didn’t like what you had to say and they made you leave the room.
JIM: Well, you know it’s important that, if you’re going to spend the taxpayers’ dollars, that you do it correctly and that you don’t waste it and all the indications were that this Bypass would waste taxpayers’ dollars, would not work, would operate at a level F service, and senior staff at VDOT, and I have to give them credit, told me privately that that was the case and so I didn’t think it was proper to just sit there and watch our hard-earned dollars go down the drain. And so we asked a lot of questions – felt that that was our duty, our statutory duty – as a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and the Secretary didn’t like any questions, just wanted us to rubber-stamp something.
That’s not my way of doing things, and so I felt I owed the taxpayers to stand up and oppose this and try to find better solutions. We’re not just saying no. There are a lot of good solutions that are out there that would be cost-effective. But they were kind of brushed aside and so they didn’t want to hear the truth of this and said, “Well, you’re out of here.”
COY: Jim, one of those cost-effective solutions that was proposed early on, in fact, decades ago, were overpasses at Rio Road and Hydraulic which are a fraction of the cost, about a third of the cost if not more so.
JIM: Absolutely, and the VDOT staff would tell you privately that that’s the way to go and also they will tell you that the Places 29 solutions, the Best Buy ramp, widening 29 north of town, Hillsdale, Berkmar, all of those things would be so much cheaper and so much less disruptive of your wonderful community down there.
COY: And more effective at moving the traffic where more of it is, right?
JIM: Yeah, more effective. The Secretary was hell-bent on reviving this for political reasons. The CTB has become very politicized, and very much of a rubber stamp. It was not that way under Governor Allen. I served on the CTB under Governor Allen and this will show you the difference.
This thing, this Bypass, came up 20 years ago when he was Governor. I saw him, I think it was at the mansion and said, “Governor, this is your home county, Albemarle – how do you want me to vote on this?” And, without a couple seconds passing, he said, “Jim, you have the facts, it’s your job to kind of lay everything, you’re going to have to do what you think is right.” Now contrast that with this administration that says, “You know you have to go with this pre-conceived thing, even though it’s going to harm people, or you’re out of here.” Big difference.
COY: And we’re talking about a road project that’s fast approaching $300 million.
COY: Explain to us this whole “bait and switch” – how we went with the low bid, knowing all along that it wasn’t going to get the job done – and we’ll just reconfigure it late and add a whole bunch of money and it ends up being more expensive than the most expensive bid.
JIM: That’s a very big problem. We have, as I alluded to a little bit earlier. We have a dysfunctional system now as far as allocating transportation dollars. Now these politicians will say, “We’ve raised all this money for transportation.” Then you’re supposed to sit back and think, well, everything’s fine. The first thing citizens need to do after they tell you that is, “What are you going to spend it on? Are you going to use it to pay off your political friends or for special interests or are you going to do something for the average commuter or the average taxpayer?” This thing came up while I was on the Board. We questioned the figures. I was very skeptical that that would be the proper amount. And now we find out – it didn’t bother to tell the CTB. We had to find out through FOIA requests – that the Senior VDOT Staff was telling the Secretary that there’s no way that this proposed dollar figure would cover this thing.
So what they did was, essentially, it’s almost fraud, without telling the CTB, they said this lower figure will do the job, knowing that it wouldn’t. It’s kind of like going into, someone trying to build a house, going into the bank and saying, “I need $200,000,” knowing they need $400,000. That really is fraud, and this type of behavior impedes a public body from making proper decisions and I really think we need to have this looked into, perhaps by the Attorney General, certainly JLARC, needs to look into this, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. You know, once before they looked into this Bypass project and found significant problems.
COY: We’re talking with Jim Rich. He’s a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a former executive at Shell Oil. With your corporate background, Jim, I want you to just take a moment here to reflect on just the idea and the theme of fiscal responsibility which we hear trumpeted most often by Conservatives and, yet, in this case, I’m sitting here scratching my head saying “How can this happen under Republican leadership; a Republican Secretary of Transportation, a Republican Governor, to do something that is, on the face of it, and every study is showing us, more increasingly is, incredibly, fiscally irresponsible?”
JIM: Well, I’ll tell you what – I’m scratching my head, too. I’m very, very disappointed because there was a great opportunity here to do a lot for the wonderful Charlottesville/Albemarle community and, frankly, I thought we could do that – put in Places 29, get some additional transit in there, and really do some good. But they went back and pulled out a 20-year-old plan that was dysfunctional and it was extremely disappointing. It goes back to, really, again, the dysfunctional nature of our transportation allocation here. Even the courts are getting into the act, telling the General Assembly, down in Hampton Roads, declaring what they did down there was a total ____ mid-town tunnel, unconstitutional. Now you can’t delegate all this public money to one guy, the Secretary of Transportation, and private entities that he networks, delegates further, the dollars. Say, “Look, you can’t do that!”
COY: At what point do we just call it corruption?
JIM: Well, I think it needs to be looked into. It really does.
COY: Yeah. Jim, before I let you go, can you reflect, to what extent, it’s well known, that a Charlottesville businessman and he’s the owner of several car dealerships, Carter Myers, had a really significant lead role in taking these overpasses off the table which was, and, as far as I am concerned, is, the solution to traffic on 29. And they are inevitable. One day they will happen. Would that they were already out there and helping traffic move on 29.
JIM: Well, that’s what VDOT’s technical people will tell you and JLARC looked into that very issue that you described. I think we need, we also need, ethics reform. We see just too much special interest controlling the process in Virginia. That will help, I think, the situation. And, again, the General Assembly, they tax us and they allocate the funds, they need to step up and say, “Look, we’re going to look into this. We need to take a bigger role.” The Courts are telling them that. I think the people are telling them that. It’s time for them to step up and protect their citizens.
COY: Absolutely. And, Jim, just to close up here, I want to respond to often when you stand up and criticize the Bypass, people say, “Well, you’re against road projects and that, of course, is not the case at all. You have championed and pioneered and endorsed numerous big road projects all across Virginia.
JIM: Absolutely. Billions of dollars of projects, but they’ve got to be cost-effective and they have to help the average citizen. I’m not going to vote for any special interests or bailouts, that type of stuff. That is just wrong and people need to stand up against it. That’s why we have a federal deficit that’s out of this world and we just can’t afford that type… We’re seeing where bridges are collapsing; like we just had one in Washington. There are a lot of infrastructure needs, so we need to spend the money wisely instead of paying off special interests or that type of thing. It’s just wrong.
COY: Jim Rich is a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board and he was fired, essentially, by Governor Bob McDonnell and Secretary Sean Conaughton for opposing the 29 Bypass in Albemarle County. Jim, I can’t thank you enough for taking some time to chat with us. Very much appreciated.
JIM: Always good to be with you. Take care.