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Barbara Hollingsworth: VDOT is next on 'Hoarders'
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

10/6/2010.  The Washington Examiner interviews Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton about the VDOT Audit.  

Barbara Hollingsworth: VDOT is next on 'Hoarders'
Washington Examiner
Barbara Hollingsworth
October 5, 2010
Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine closed 19 of the commonwealth's 42 interstate rest stops on July 21, 2009, to save $9 million.
"This was not an easy decision," a Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman said at the time. "But we are facing this massive funding shortfall."
On that very same day, however, VDOT was sitting on $348 million in highway maintenance funds it had stashed away in an obscure sub-account whose existence was known to only a handful of Kaine administration insiders.
"Shocked," is how Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said he felt when independent auditors uncovered nearly $1 billion in unspent highway funds. "The governor was even more shocked. We were not expecting to find this amount."
VDOT for years had been hoarding highway revenue in secretive sub-accounts of the general highway operations fund, which pays for maintenance, and the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for construction.
"A regular audit would never have seen this," Connaughton told The Examiner. "They just make sure that every dollar in the system is accounted for."
The former Prince William Board of Supervisors chairman started asking questions as soon as he took over as VDOT secretary in January. "We were concerned that maintenance levels were going down and we were not seeing projects coming through the pipeline. The highlight was finding out that less than half of the $700 million allocated for state highway projects had been obligated -- and we had just six weeks to obligate the rest."
That was just the first of many surprises. "The next question was where were we on our normal $850 million federal allocation? The answer to that was even more shocking: The Kaine administration had obligated less than 5 percent of federal highway money it received, and it was already six months into the fiscal year!"
Another shocker: "Since we cut all the money for projects last year, we assumed there should be a lot of projects ready to go. Then we found out that there wasn't," Connaughton told me. "A lot of money was going in, and we started looking at why paved roads weren't coming out the other end."
But it took last winter's massive snowstorms to start the process that would ultimately lead to unexpected pots of gold. "VDOT spent $200 million on snow removal without skipping a beat. When I asked how we were going to pay for it, they said: 'We have money.' "
"We have money?' I asked. "Then I knew there was cash someplace."
In a lame statement issued after auditors discovered the hidden cache, Kaine did not explain why the public was told VDOT was out of money, noting only that it was "good news" the agency had cash in the bank.
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, acknowledged that "some projects may have been slowed down in the process," praising VDOT for its "cautious approach during a period of great financial uncertainty. ... [It] did not over-obligate funds, as we saw under the [Gov. Jim] Gilmore administration."
Brilliant spin, Dick! Lie to the public, shutter essential public facilities used by some 40 million people annually, hoard tax revenue in secret accounts, slow down needed highway construction projects -- and then blame it on a Republican governor who left office eight years ago.
Whatever VDOT's motivation for hoarding -- either the agency is grossly incompetent or was deliberately hiding public funds -- the jig is up. Gov. Bob McDonnell has reopened the rest stops and Connaughton says that by next spring, Virginians should expect to see the busiest highway construction season ever. In a weird sort of way, we have last winter's crippling snowstorms to thank.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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