RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) - WAVY News 10's Andy Fox sat down for an exclusive one-on-one today with Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton .
Connaughton stands by the $2.2 billion public private partnership which would result in the installation of tolls on the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels, which thousands of people consider excessive.
WAVY.com asked Connaughton what he thought about all the strategies being brought forth to fight the installation of tolls.
State Senator Louise Lucas', (D) Portsmouth, budget amendment to delay the toll until 2014 is now part of the budget negotiations between the House of Delegates and the State Senate.
Connaughton's answer on the proposed delay gives the impression the administration is considering the notion.
"If the language is revised then it is something we would end up looking at," Connaughton said.
Earlier this week, Governor Bob McDonnell received advice from the State Attorney General that the amendment as is was unconstitutional. The line of concern in the amendment states, "No toll shall be levied prior to the implementation and incorporation of this strategy into the Comprehensive Agreement for the project."
The Administration believes this is in violation of the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions, because it interferes with a signed contract.
Lucas praised the admission by Connaughton.
"If it's just a word then we'll change the word," Lucas said. "The only thing I care about is no tolls until Jan. 1, 2014. I don't care what the amendment says as long as that happens."
Connaughton said he does not support any of Delegate Chris Jones seven point plan, which calls for the road project to be scaled back. Jones' plan would cut the Martin Luther King extension from the project completely. The elimination would save $194 million from the $2.2 billion project
Jones also wants the following changes made to the comprehensive agreement:
- Remove transit improvements - saving $116M
- Fund the project with the VDOT Six Year Program
- Have VDOT do maintenance work, not private vendors
- Redirect Route 460 money to the Midtown Tunnel Project
- Prohibit all tolls until after completion
But, Connaughton said it's a plan he can't support.
"No. I actually don't. None of them. I don't. You would be looking at a dramatically different project, and you will go back to square one."
Back to square one is exactly what critics of the public-private partnership want, but Connaughton said the it's what's needed, "This is how you get the investment in these type of transportation projects right now."
Connaughton also seemed undaunted by Norfolk Delegate Ken Alexander 's lawsuit alleging VDOT and the Elizabeth River Crossings cannot raise taxes as they are un-elected persons. Alexander will argue the tolls are taxes.
"These are not taxes. They are clearly user fees. That is very clear," Connaughton said.
However, a court will decide if it indeed is "very clearly".
Residents' messages of pain have been sent, and Connaughton contends they are not falling on deaf ears.
"We are looking how to work with them on tolls and how to collect them. There are some things we can do to address some of the concerns that have been raised," Connaughton added.
He would not reveal what those options were.
Connaughton told WAVY.com 200 VDOT workers will lose their jobs when the partnership takes over.
Click here to hear the interview with Connaughton in its entirety.
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