Betting against taxpayers

Published 10:16 am Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ivor’s L.A. Brantley is the third generation of his family to farm the land he owns and works in Southampton County. His family has owned the property, which now encompasses about 1,500 acres, since the turn of the last century.

Brantley’s deep connection to his land is evident in his eyes when he talks about how it will be cut up by the new Route 460. It’s evident in his voice when he describes the damage that has been done to his property just during the testing stages taking place as engineers try to figure out whether the route they’ve chosen for the new road will even be feasible.

If the Virginia Department of Transportation has its way, Brantley will lose about 50 acres of his property to the highway. About 17 acres of that land is in cultivation, and the rest has standing timber. He’ll get paid for all of it, but he’d rather just not lose the land at all. He’s just not likely to have much choice in the matter, though.

The same thing can be said for the people of Virginia, who never got much of a say in the decision to build the road, nor in the negotiations that determined the financial arrangements connected to it.

Widespread opposition to building a new Route 460 — especially one whose tolls would start at $11.72 for trucks and $3.69 for cars — made no difference to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who for reasons that stumped even many of his supporters, has made the project a linchpin of his transportation legacy. The project is a special burden to the people of Hampton Roads, who might have faced lower tolls on their own upcoming projects if the billion dollars the state has promised for Route 460 had been used instead for helping to pay for the tunnel and bridge projects there.

Even in the face of a serious risk that the proposed route will be denied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, VDOT and its private partner in the enterprise continue to work, possibly in hopes of being seen to be too far along to turn back.

So far, $192 million in taxpayer funds have been spent on the project, which is now under federal review because of the revelation that it will impact 474 acres of wetlands.

Far more important highway projects have been canceled for potentially causing far less environmental impact. Yet the commonwealth and its contractors continue to move ahead.

Will the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers step in to save Brantley’s farm and Virginia taxpayers’ money?

Transportation officials seem to hope the feds will show up too late to make a substantive difference — that the investment they’ve made in the project by that time will either dissuade the Corps from deciding against the project or convince taxpayers to ante up more to redraw the plans.

Either way, VDOT and the governor seem to be betting hard against taxpayers. It’s no wonder folks have so little regard for their government lately.