WAMU - Washington —
In Virginia, a major transportation project goes nowhere unless it receives the support of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. This influential, 17-member panel picks the winners from the state’s long wish list of road improvement projects. Yet, few of the members are known to the general public, and most do not have transportation or urban planning backgrounds. Most of these key transportation decision makers come from the real estate or banking sectors.
But now the push to build a controversial, ten-mile highway plan is raising questions about who is making the most important transportation decisions in Virginia. The CTB members are all appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell. Among its members are three businessmen, one accountant, two representatives of real estate development/management firms, three bankers/financiers, and the head of a company that builds truck rest stops.
The CTB’s support of the Bi-County Parkway in Loudoun and Prince William Counties is drawing attention to the makeup of the board, especially its Northern Virginia representative Gary Garczynski, a prodigious home builder. Critics contend the parkway would serve as a boon to real estate developers instead of providing congestion relief for commuters.
In the view of smart growth and transit advocates and environmentalists, the Bi-County Parkway is just the latest in a long line of costly highway projects the McDonnell administration has either started or seen through to completion using money that could have gone to transit or other projects that mitigate sprawl.
WAMU Speaks with Garczynski (Listen here)
The CEO of National Capital Land and Development Company attempted to refute critics’ claims that the CTB serves as rubber stamp for the McDonnell administration.
“I would like to think that my appointment was a reflection of the fact that for 35 years I’ve been in Northern Virginia developing properties. So I have a fairly extensive knowledge in operating in the counties and cities and towns in Northern Virginia and am aware of where the choke points are and where the real challenges are for transportation,” said Garczynski, who said he would not stand to benefit personally from the construction of the Bi-County Parkway. “So it’s not so much a formal schooling in transportation; we leave that to the experts,” he added.
Earlier this year the Commonwealth Transportation Board accepted but did not endorse the findings in the Virginia Department of Transportation’s study of the 45-mile “north-south corridor of statewide significance” of which the Bi-County Parkway is one segment. After months of ferocious public opposition, VDOT decided to shelve the corridor study while simultaneously launching a public relations campaign to cultivate support for the Bi-County Parkway.
Opponents argue VDOT’s rationale for backing the project continues to change, but Garczynski believes the justification has been consistently stated: the highway will help commuters in the coming decades reach emerging job centers west of Dulles Airport.
“I wouldn’t be an advocate for the north-south corridor and the Bi-County Parkway if I didn’t believe the job creation and the traffic numbers that we received from the [Metropolitan Washington] Council of Governments aren’t true. This road is going to be needed… in the next five to ten years,” Garczynski said. “If it is not built I believe you will see secondary roads continue to increase in volume to where it will continue to affect quality of life for people who have to make that north-south commute.”
“I am not going to deny I am in business to make a profit, but I’d like to think that whether as a homebuilder or a developer, we created the housing, we created opportunities for employment that are important to the whole fabric of what we’re about as a country,” he added.
Garczynski on his political relationships
Since 1993 Garczynski has donated $58,338 to political campaigns; 98 percent has been given to Republican candidates, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The largest recipient of Garczynski’s donations is Corey Stewart ($19,000), the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and supporter of the Bi-County Parkway. In 2008-2009, Garczynski donated $10,500 to Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign. In January 2010 the new governor appointed Garczynski to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
“The last time I looked on my passport I was a citizen of the United States, and that gives me the right to contribute to whomever I want to,” said Garczynski. “I could turn around and say the same thing of the opponents of the Bi-County Parkway. Where are those dollars coming from? Am I sitting here denying someone the opportunity of giving to the Piedmont Environmental Council or the Coalition for Smarter Growth. That’s their right just as it is my right,” he said.
CTB “lacks diversity”
One critic of the CTB’s current makeup says the board would be wise to include voices from the engineering profession as well as the smart growth/transit advocacy community.
“It needs to be more diverse and it needs to have, frankly, oversight from residents,” said Navid Roshan, a civil engineer who performs consulting work for the federal government. Roshan is the blogger at TheTysonsCorner.com, his own website, where he published a critique of the CTB for its lack of engineers and transportation experts.
“This particular project is a sort of a beacon light that is allowing people to see there are bad decisions sometimes made by people who are in a supposed field of transportation expertise,” he said.
Roshan says if the Bi-County Parkway is necessary, construction should be paid for by those who will benefit from it, similar to the special tax district established around future Silver Line stations in Tysons Corner.