Bill protests highway marketing [Virginian - Pilot]
(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) By Bill Sizemore
You might call it the "no-shill bill."
Should the Virginia Department of Transportation be allowed to spend taxpayer dollars on a professional public relations campaign to sell a controversial road project to the public?
Del. Bob Marshall doesn't think so; he introduced legislation to prohibit it.
The Prince William County Republican's bill (HB533) got a favorable hearing in a House subcommittee this week. As a result, it appears Gov. Terry McAuliffe's new administration has a brush fire to put out.
Marshall is steamed over a campaign mounted by the administration of McAuliffe's predecessor, Bob McDonnell, to engage the public regarding the Bi-County Parkway, a planned highway that would connect Prince William and Loudoun counties west of Dulles Airport.
The proposed road would go through a historic district containing the Manassas battlefield of Civil War fame and has generated vocal grassroots opposition.
Marshall told the subcommittee that the McDonnell administration paid a private public relations firm more than $500,000 to conduct a heavy-handed propaganda campaign extolling the virtues of the project.
The campaign has included TV ads, doorknob fliers and meetings with homeowners associations.
"It is sheer advocacy," Marshall said. "To me, this is an improper use of money."
It's OK to disseminate information in a neutral manner, he said, but he draws the line at advocacy.
Page Snyder, a Prince William County resident, told the subcommittee that VDOT's stance in the meetings with homeowners associations was anything but neutral.
"Something is rotten in the state of Virginia, and the taxpayers are footing the bill," she said. "They were not there to get input from citizens. They were there to sell, sell, sell.
"VDOT hired a PR firm at our expense to shove this project down our throats."
Marshall's bill would prohibit VDOT from using state money to "solicit pressure on state or local government officials" related to "any proposed safety-related or congestion management-related highway project or program through the use of public media."
Several subcommittee members shared Marshall's outrage.
"This is not a good use of taxpayer funds," said Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover County. "This is totally ridiculous."
Peace, who sits on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he expects that Aubrey Layne, McAuliffe's transportation secretary, will face questioning about the matter when he appears before the committee Monday.
No representative from VDOT was present at the subcommittee meeting.
Tamara Rollison, a VDOT spokeswoman, said the agency's intent is not to engage in advocacy.
"VDOT has an obligation and responsibility to inform the public about projects, programs, construction and any other business that we perform and how it could impact the public," she said. "The public expects us to do that, and the purpose of our communication is to get the facts out.
"They can make up their own minds on how they feel about it, what they think about it, but they need the information to be able to do that."
Pilot writer Julian Walker contributed to this report.
Bill Sizemore, 804-697-1560, firstname.lastname@example.org
Del. Bob Marshall told a House subcommittee that the McDonnell administration paid a public relations firm more than $500,000 to campaign in favor of the Bi-County Parkway.
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