When the Commonwealth Transportation Board met Wednesday at the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Richmond headquarters, it was missing one member.
“I am no longer on the Commonwealth Transportation Board,” said James Rich, who Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed in July 2010 to represent VDOT’s Culpeper District on the body that establishes transportation policy in Virginia.
VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison confirmed that Rich is no longer a member of the CTB, but did not elaborate on the reason.
Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for McDonnell, said Rich resigned from the CTB.
“Decisions about future appointments to the board have not yet been made,” Caldwell said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
However, Rich informed Charlottesville Tomorrow that Sean Connaughton, Virginia’s transportation secretary, told him he was being removed.
“I think the Secretary of Transportation wanted me to depart because I voted against the Western Bypass,” Rich said.
According to state code, members of the CTB are “removable from office during their respective terms by the Governor at his pleasure.”
Rich previously served as a CTB representative in the mid-1990s.
“This is a very different board then the one I served under Gov. Allen,” Rich said. “On this board, all the decisions are made by the secretary and I question whether we really need a board.”
Rich consistently has been the lone vote on the CTB against the U.S. 29 Western Bypass. In December, he introduced a resolution to reallocate the $135 million the body dedicated to the project in July 2011.
At the time, Connaughton called the resolution inappropriate.
Local elected officials said they valued Rich’s independence.
“James Rich has consistently been a ‘hands-on’ strong advocate for our region and our projects,” said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who is the House minority leader and member of the House transportation committee. “He has been a good CTB member and I am sorry that his willingness to provide an independent voice has led the governor to remove him from the board.”
Albemarle Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker called Rich’s removal from the board an “embarrassment to state government.”
“The CTB was created in an effort to depoliticize transportation decisions with an independent board,” Rooker said. “Removing Jim Rich demonstrates that hasn't worked. Dissent will not be tolerated. Independent thought and judgment will not be tolerated.”
Albemarle Supervisor Duane E. Snow, a supporter of the bypass, also spoke highly of Rich. “All I can say about the situation, if it is true, is that Jim's a good man and he is a strong advocate for the things he believes in,” he said.
Rich said he was confident that the bypass ultimately would not move forward, citing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggestion that VDOT will have to conduct an assessment of alternatives before it will issue a permit to disturb wetlands and other areas under its jurisdiction.
Rich said he will continue to oppose the bypass and is glad he had the chance to do so as an appointed official.
“If they think I was going to just sit there as a potted plant, they were wrong,” Rich said. “As long as I was on the board, I was going to do what was right because that’s the responsibility we have to the taxpayers.”
As the General Assembly begins to evaluate McDonnell’s transportation policies, Rich said he hopes that they will provide a check on the state’s executive branch.
“While we have some proposals in the General Assembly to add more money for transportation, there’s no statutory formula being suggested,” Rich said. “With all the decisions being made by the Secretary, there’s no input from the General Assembly or the CTB, so I would hope that the members of the legislature would have some kind of mechanism to have oversight over new monies if new monies are made available.”
McDonnell addressed the CTB yesterday to press for his transportation package, which would eliminate the state’s gas tax in favor of a sales tax increase that would be dedicated to transportation projects.
This story was updated with additional reporting at 11:36 pm on January 16.