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Monday, January 11, 2010

Norfolk transit chief faces board

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When Hampton Roads Transit's board meets in special session Jan. 11 to discuss the future of embattled President Michael Townes, the members cannot immediately fire him, The Virginian-Pilot reports. Townes' contract requires that he be given 30 days notice of a vote to terminate his employment. That notice was given Dec. 28, when four board members wrote him demanding that he resign or they would introduce a resolution to dismiss him at the Jan. 28 board meeting.

Townes, who has headed HRT since it was formed in 1999, has said that he will not resign and that he believes he has the support of the majority of the board.

Townes has been criticized for poor oversight and communication in managing the construction of Norfolk's light-rail project, which is 47 percent over budget and a year behind schedule. Discontent grew last week when it was revealed that a possible embezzlement of $80,000 was hidden from the full board and that no criminal charges were sought.

Three board members sympathetic to Townes called today's special meeting. The agenda lists only a closed session for "performance matters." The members who called the meeting said they want more information about the light-rail cost overruns and how they relate to Townes' performance.


"Someone could bring forward a resolution of some sort related to this but for the life of me I don't know what it could be," said Jim Wood, HRT chairman and Virginia Beach councilman who signed the letter seeking Townes' resignation.

The Beach City Council is set to vote Jan. 12 on a resolution calling on the HRT board to fire Townes. It also says that the council would not support extending light rail to the city as long as Townes remains in charge. Norfolk's council will consider a similar resolution that expresses a lack of confidence in HRT management.

While Wood said he believes the timing of today's special meeting is coincidental, vice chairman and Norfolk Councilman W. Randy Wright thinks it's more strategic.

"It certainly looks like it was done to try to pre-empt some public sentiment if nothing else," Wright said.

Norfolk's starter light-rail line, which runs from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center on Brambleton Avenue through downtown to the city line at Newtown Road, was budgeted to cost $232 million but now is projected to be $340 million. The opening date has been pushed into 2011.

Most HRT board members and Norfolk council members said they did not learn of the new cost projections until they were contacted by The Virginian-Pilot last month. About a year ago, HRT said the $232-million price had jumped to $288 million. Three weeks ago, the price rose to $328 million. A week later, it was $340 million.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Beach Taxpayer Alliance has requested the Department of Transportation Inspector General to investigate HRT. In a letter, the alliance says the agency "manipulated the system" and "willfully underestimated the real cost of the Norfolk Light Rail project in order to qualify for funds... that (HRT) would otherwise not have qualified for."

HRT officials have acknowledged that the original design of the light-rail project was "bare bones" to meet stringent criteria for federal money.

Townes has said, however, that the system as originally designed had passed Federal Transit Authority muster and would have been functional. He said enhancements were made, such as burying track and improving stations, that contributed to higher costs but also resulted in "a better project that hopefully will build enthusiasm for extending the line."