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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hampton Roads Transit chief Townes retires

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Michael Townes, the embattled CEO of Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia said that he would retire at the end of September and step down as CEO and president of the agency on Jan. 31, according to the Hampton Roads Daily Press. Townes had been under mounting pressure to step down after costs of the Norfolk light-rail project, the first in the state was over budget by nearly $100 million.

Townes submitted his letter informing the board of his retirement at a special meeting of HRT's board, called by several of his supporters to discuss recent issues regarding the project and Townes performance.

"Thank you for the opportunity to have served the Hampton Roads Community," he said in the letter. Townes became president of HRT in 1999 when PenTran merged with Tidewater Regional Transit.

Townes said Monday evening that he was satisfied with his career at HRT.

"I've got a pretty darn good legacy here," he said. Townes said he planned to retire already but that he "accelerated the process a bit."

Several board members appeared exhausted after the meeting. Vice-Chairman of the HRT Board Randy Wright, who helped lead the charge for Townes' ouster and said the two were close like brothers hugged several members, releasing a long breath before embracing Newport News City Councilwoman Pat Woodbury, who also sits on the board.

"It was a magnanimous gesture in my mind," Wright said, referring to Townes' decision. Wright, who sits on Norfolk City Council, declined to comment on several accusations that Townes made in a recent Daily Press interview that Wright and board chairman Jim Wood were aware of cost overruns in the project, but pressured Townes not to come forward with them to Norfolk City Council.

Wright said he was remorseful that things had reached this level. "This project is larger than any one person," he said. "Including Michael Townes and Randy Wright." Several South Side officials, including Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said they would not pursue the light-rail project until leadership changed at HRT.

Board members said they were not aware Townes planned to resign during the meeting, which was held largely in closed session because personnel issues were being discussed. Wood said Townes submitted the letter a half hour into the meeting.

Under the agreement, Townes will remain employed by the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, which oversees HRT to help solicit federal and state funds for the light-rail project. He will also receive a year's salary as severance pay, $179,683 starting in September.

Washington called for the special meeting, along with Newport News Vice-Mayor Joe Whitaker and citizen board member Grace Routten after disgruntlement with how Wood and Wright had called for his resignation before meeting with the full board. Townes told the Daily Press last week that he had no intention of resigning and that a majority of the board would back him. But Monday, he appeared somber after his retirement was announced and left immediately after the meeting.