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January 19, 2013 12:10 am



The Virginia Railway Express Operations Board voted Friday to oppose a Senate bill that some commuter rail officials say would allow the state to take over VRE.

The VRE board was reacting to legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate Transportation Committee.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford County, would add a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board to the VRE Operations Board. That member's vote would be weighted depending on the percentage of state money going into the Northern Virginia commuter rail service.

Now, the VRE board is made up of elected officials from localities that support the commuter rail, and one state public transportation department representative.

Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, represented the state at Friday's VRE meeting, in place of the regular representative, Kevin Page.

She said the state doesn't intend to control VRE. But Drake explained that one reason for the bill stemmed from an August decision by the VRE board not to seek an independent audit of commuter rail finances.

Page voted for the audit, along with a minority of VRE board members.

But at the time there was confusion about how the jurisdictions' weighted votes worked. In the end the votes against the audit won out.

Drake said the state representative's "vote didn't count, unless we were in that majority." The state, she added, "is extremely concerned about having a vote."

Despite the vote, the state decided to conduct its own audit of VRE, focusing on its organizational structure and governance. Drake said the audit could be finished within weeks.

State officials have expressed concerns about an FBI investigation last year that resulted in a former VRE manager pleading guilty to taking kickbacks for subcontracting work. The manager was sentenced to 24 months in prison on Friday.

Some VRE board members said there seems to be a lot of misinformation about that issue.

They said state legislators need to know the whole story before they vote on Stuart's bill.

VRE board members and officials said they have been completely cooperative with the investigation.

During Friday's sometimes contentious meeting, VRE board members said they were disappointed in how the state went about pursuing additional voting power on the operations board.

Paul Milde, VRE board member and Stafford County supervisor, called the move "heavy-handed and sneaky."

Most on the board said they understand the state wanting to make sure it has its fair say, and they are open to discussing the issue with state officials.

Yet they also agreed that if the state wants more voting power, it should have more obligations--such as paying annual subsidies like member jurisdictions do; accepting more debt burden; or taking more responsibility in operation decisions.

Drake and state officials contend that the state deserves more say for the funding it provides.

But there is disagreement over how much funding the state provides.

Drake presented figures showing the state's portion of funding for VRE over the latest fiscal years:

In 2011, its share was 24 percent; in 2012, it was 30 percent; and in 2013, 32 percent.

VRE officials, however, say some of the funding the state claims is actually federal transportation money.

VRE puts the percentage of state funding at about 16 percent and federal funding at 20 percent. Fare revenue and local jurisdiction subsidies account for almost 64 percent of funding, according to VRE.

The annual budget for VRE in fiscal 2013 is $80 million.

The VRE board's resolution against the bill will be sent to Senate members.

The bill must still be passed in the full Senate and then go to the House of Delegates for approval before going to the governor for signature into law.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

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