The Virginia Department of Transportation has drawn criticism for their public relations expenditures.
The Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to pay the D.C.-based public relations firm Stratacomm nearly $300,000 to help the agency build public support for a controversial highway plan in Northern Virginia, according to documents obtained by a state legislator through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
State Del. Bob Marshall (R-13th), a vocal opponent of the Bi-County Parkway, a ten-mile highway that would connect Loudoun and Prince William Counties west of Dulles Airport and the Manassas battlefield, obtained the contract agreement that shows VDOT agreed to pay Stratacomm $289,228 for an array of services.
Although studied for a decade, VDOT has heavily promoted the project for only the past year, with a series of public meetings, presentations, and interviews with the news media. The public relations campaign has coincided with negotiations with the National Park Service to allow VDOT to pave over part of the western fringe of the Civil War battlefield in exchange for closing congested Rt. 234 through the battlefield. Those negotiations are nearing an end, but the partial shutdown of the federal government is delaying a final agreement.
"VDOT is saying in its scope of work that the effort will increase the credibility and trust of the Virginia Department of Transportation in the eyes of the public," said Marshall. "If trust is lacking in VDOT, it is because of their own words and conflicting statements which they have made time and time again."
Marshall, who is part of a group of conservative Republicans in the General Assembly fighting the Bi-County Parkway, blasted Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton for the decision to retain Stratacomm. The state is in effect using tax dollars to lobby public officials and sway residents, he said.
"They are misrepresenting to the public what they are doing. That is unacceptable public policy," said Marshall. "Sean Connaughton should be ashamed of himself. This is, in fact, stealing from the public."
Sec. Connaughton defended the move to hire Stratacomm as a response to critics like Marshall who claimed VDOT was not performing enough public outreach.
"As a consequence, we have turned to a consultant like we do with most communications efforts to meet with stakeholders, meet with elected officials, homeowners' associations, to help organize a communications effort," Connaughton said.
"The whole purpose is to educate the public on what this project is, what it is not, to dispel a lot of the myths and misinformation, so we can get the public to know what we've been working on for the last 12 years," he added. "This is in direct response to complaints of Delegate Marshall and others in the General Assembly... they did not think we did enough public outreach regarding this effort."
VDOT's internal staffing has dropped from 8,500 to 7,100 in recent years, Connaughton said, so the agency does not have adequate staff to undertake large-scale public outreach efforts. Moreover, the transportation secretary said VDOT hires outside consultants for most large projects.
Opponents seized on the contract disclosure to criticize VDOT.
"It's one thing to do outreach to encourage the public to participate in the study process and offer their input. That's a legitimate use of tax dollars, but to use tax dollars to fund what amounts to a propaganda campaign is another matter entirely," said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes large highway construction projects.
Once a final agreement is reached with the National Park Service and other signatories determining the Bi-County Parkway's precise corridor, Virginia officials anticipate final environmental approval a few weeks later. The government shutdown is delaying the process.