A Northern Virginia delegate has filed a bill for the upcoming session of the General Assembly that would prevent future governors from firing members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board for opposing their priorities.
If the bill becomes state law, the change would prevent a repeat of last January, when Gov. Bob McDonnell removed James Rich from the panel for his opposition to the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 in Albemarle County.
“If you are removed for voting your conscience, I think there’s a problem with that,” said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville. “People are put on these boards to provide an independent review, to provide their judgment and to provide their analysis.”
Hugo’s bill would change state law that governs the state’s top transportation decision-making body to allow a member to be removed “for malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence, or gross neglect of duty.”
Current law allows the governor to remove a member of the board “at his pleasure.”
Rich served a second term on the CTB beginning in July 2010 after holding the position under Gov. George Allen in the mid-1990s.
Though no official reason was given, Rich was consistently the lone vote against the Western Bypass when the project was revived by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors in the summer of 2011.
Final design and construction of the 6.2-mile, $244.5 million highway cannot begin until the Virginia Department of Transportation has completed an environmental review as required by federal law. Rich had argued the funds allocated to the project would be better spent elsewhere in the commonwealth.
“It looks to me like this [would be] a very positive change in the code to ensure that the CTB focuses on the public good and efficient prioritization and expenditure of transportation funds,” Rich said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Rich had made several attempts to kill the project, including a failed motion in December 2012 that sought to redistribute funding from the bypass to other high-profile projects across the state, including the expansion of the Metro to Dulles Airport.
At the time, outgoing Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton called the attempt “inappropriate,” and Rich was removed a month later.
The position remained vacant until McDonnell appointed Alison DeTuncq to replace him in August. DeTuncq, president of the University of Virginia Community Credit Union, has not had to take a vote on the Western Bypass.
Hugo, who said he has no position on the bypass, claimed his bill would restore independence to the CTB.
“When you appoint people and then remove them at will just because they may have a disagreement or even raise a question, that’s not an independent board,” Hugo said.
A separate bill filed by Hugo would expand membership of the CTB from 18 to 24, with the six new positions to be filled by members of the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
Hugo said if both bills pass, residents in his district opposed to expansion of existing highways in the “North-South Corridor” would have more of a voice.
“There’s a tremendous amount of local opposition — Democrats and Republicans — and a great uproar whether it would mitigate congestion,” Hugo said. “It’s really a product of the ambitions of the secretary of transportation and not a product of the ambitions of local residents.”
Hugo’s bill is not the only one that seeks to alter the composition of the transportation panel.
Another bill filed by Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall, would add four new positions to provide additional representation for Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and rural Virginia.
A bill filed by Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would change the composition of the body so members represent congressional districts with three at-large members.
The General Assembly convenes Wednesday.