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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."

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