WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Thursday released an audit of the state’s Department of Transportation that showed $1.45 billion could be freed up for projects and that these new funds could possibly accelerate VDOT’s bond issuances, sources said.
The audit, conducted by Cherry, Bekaert & Holland LLP, an accounting and consultant firm, made more than 50 recommendations in the report, which was requested by McDonnell soon after he took office earlier this year.
McDonnell said Thursday that Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton and VDOT commissioner Gregory A. Whirley will begin to implement the recommendations and that he expects $800 million to $900 million of contracts for transportation projects to be awarded by the end of the year.
The audit recommends using toll credits, rather than bonds or state cash, to meet the matching requirement for federal transportation funds. Also, the state could free up about $200 million by reducing its construction fund cash balance.
As of June 30, the construction fund held $478 million in cash reserves, more than five months of construction spending. The audit recommends reducing that reserve account to 60 to 90 days of cash on hand. This ratio is more in line with other states’ reserves, officials said.
“The numbers we have today are excessive,” McDonnell said. speaking to reporters about the construction reserve level.
The construction reserve account was filled with cash because the state was concerned about the reauthorization of federal highway money.
VDOT was “holding back a fair amount of money,” which is “way beyond what VDOT needed,” said Jeffrey Southard, the executive vice president for the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance and a former VDOT assistant commissioner.
VDOT “had become very conservative in its practices,” Southard said. VDOT could “accelerate” some of the bond issues it has already authorized if funds are freed up to back the bonds, he said.
The audit comes as the state’s transportation revenues have declined. VDOT’s fiscal 2010 revenue was revised lower last September by $155.9 million. Thursday’s audit estimates fiscal 2011 revenues will be $3.32 billion, down from the $3.57 billion estimate that resulted from an analysis conducted under Pierce R. Homer, former Gov. Tim Kaine’s transportation secretary.
McDonnell is also is trying to win support for his plan to privatize state liquor stores and use some of the proceeds for transportation, including a state infrastructure bank. McDonnell has said he hopes the bank would work like the Virginia Resources Authority, which sells bonds to the public backed by loans it makes to local governments and infrastructure authorities.
This is the second transportation-related audit requested by McDonnell. In May, he released the findings of an audit of the state’s public-private partnership program conducted by KPMG Corporate Finance LLC. That report recommended Virginia create a separate P3 office to reduce the obstacles private businesses face in dealing with the state.
However, the state earlier this month scuttled its plans for a public-private partnership to operate the Port of Virginia. Three private bids from the companies were dismissed because they undervalued the port, Connaughton said.
State lawmakers said they are hesitant to endorse this latest audit without more details. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat, said many of the funding recommendations “apparently fail to acknowledge” that the current formula for infrastructure maintenance ensures all areas of the state receive funding.
The audit demonstrates that Virginia “has yet to face the fact that it lacks a comprehensive long-term plan” for transportation, Saslaw said in a statement.
The state in May issued $492 million of transportation bonds. The bonds were authorized in 2007, but were delayed by lawsuits and the financial crisis.