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Audit suggests changes for VRE

Depending on who you ask, it seems the recently released state audit of the Virginia Railway Express is either a bore or a witch hunt.

However it’s perceived, the audit ordered last year by Gov. Bob McDonnell suggests that the commuter rail service needs to make some organizational changes.

VRE officials said they’ve already addressed some of the issues raised in the report. But they added that the trains on the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, which carry about 10,000 commuters each weekday, are successful and no major changes are on the horizon.

McDonnell asked for the audit late last year amid a swirl of controversies. They included: the conviction of a former VRE worker for taking kickbacks from a sub-contractor; anonymous allegations of mismanagement by VRE employees; and the state pushing for more say in VRE operations, a move seen as a power grab by some with the commuter rail service.

The final report, compiled by Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, makes no mention of the bribery case. Neither does it bring up the allegations of mismanagement, which apparently were unfounded.

The audit does, however, touch on the issue of giving the state more say, stating that VRE should ensure “sufficient voice is given to all entities supporting its operations.”

VRE gets its money from fare revenue, local governments where the trains run as well as state and federal funds.

To some degree, the issue of the state having more say on the board has been addressed. The General Assembly last year approved a measure to give the state another vote on the VRE board.

In a letter responding to the audit, Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, agreed with the move. She said a new VRE structure “that recognizes the contribution of funding partners with a weighted vote is important.”

While the audit praises VRE for its service and growth, it describes its structure as blurred because the commuter rail service operates under the authority of its owners, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission. Elected officials from Stafford, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania and Prince William serve on the PRTC.

VRE’s Mark Roeber and Al Harf, executive director of the PRTC, said the VRE is already addressing some of the auditor’s suggestions.

For instance, the commuter rail service this summer started the process of updating its long-range strategic plan, which was last done in 2004. The audit described VRE’s long-term plans as outdated and in need of better focus.

The audit also called for VRE to consider beefing up its own internal auditing process.

Under the guidance of the commissions, VRE is creating an audit committee, Harf and Roeber said.

“Overall, I thought it was a good process,” Roeber said Monday.

Paul Milde, one of Stafford’s two representatives on the VRE Operations Board, had a different take on the audit.

He said the VRE board is taking the audit’s suggestions seriously, but is miffed about the reason he thinks the audit was conducted.

“I think the whole investigation was misguided,” Milde said on Monday, calling it a “witch hunt” and an attempt by the state “to get their hands in” on VRE’s success.

“VRE is one of the best commuter trains in the world, certainly in the country,” Milde said. “You’ve heard the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I don’t know how much better it could work.”

In the end, he said the audit is a “vindication of VRE.”

Considering the controversies that led to the audit, its findings were “underwhelming,” said Matt Kelly, Fredericksburg’s representative on the VRE Operations Board.

He agreed with the audit that VRE’s operations are somewhat convoluted, but pointed out that the state set up VRE’s structure when the commuter rail system was established in 1992.

Kelly also said that in the long run, VRE probably should consider becoming a state-run entity. He admitted that not many on the VRE board agree with that stance.

But, he said, if the commuter rail system is going to grow, more state backing would give VRE greater leverage in dealing with CSX Transportation, which owns the tracks on which VRE trains run.

Roeber said VRE’s management structure could change in the future if it continues to grow.

“For now,” he said, “we are comfortable with the structure that we have.”


Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436