McAuliffe suggests toll-road hold

Published 11:09 am Wednesday, December 11, 2013


SUFFOLK—Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe has declared taxpayers must be assured the new Route 460 project has federal approval before spending their money on it, departing from his predecessor’s undiluted support, but there has been no letup in spending on the limited-access toll road lately.

The situation has been quite the opposite, in fact.

After estimated payments to US 460 Mobility Partners totaling more than $204 million were approved for Dec. 20, 2012, through October, an estimated $74 million in payments to the private project partner are projected through January, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT’s last spending tally, in November, was $192 million.

According to VDOT project manager Phil Rinehart, permit issues stemming from concerns over the project’s destruction of wetlands, are being worked through during weekly meetings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Norfolk division.

The most recent estimates suggest VDOT’s preferred alignment would impact 474 acres of wetlands, 3-1/2 times what was previously thought, while the Corps, which under federal law would have to issue a permit for the wetlands to be disturbed, remains convinced that expanding the existing 460 could be the least environmentally damaging viable option.

“Since September, the focus has been on the permit application,” Rinehart said, adding a lot has to happen before right-of-way acquisition can commence.

VDOT’s five-year project billing schedule estimates landowners standing in the 55-mile road’s Suffolk-to-Petersburg path will receive a combined $115 million, all of it to be paid out next year, while additional related costs will total $25 million.

But the schedule is still being updated, Rinehart said, adding, “the most critical part is making sure everybody’s in agreement with the permit” before confirming future steps.

“I think that’s fair to the property owners, that we are not overestimating in land” that would be compulsorily acquired, he said.

McAuliffe’s remarks on the project, first published Wednesday, indicate he may freeze the project while permit issues are being worked out.

In a statement Friday, transition team spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said McAuliffe “recognizes the need to expand Virginia’s transportation infrastructure in Hampton Roads to unlock the port, support our national security assets and get commuters out of traffic” — all among various arguments outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell has used in his strident support of the project.

But, she added, McAuliffe “is carefully evaluating the Route 460 project and many others across the commonwealth. He agrees with local leaders that before committing Virginia taxpayer dollars, Virginians must be assured the project receives federal approval.”

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton did not respond to a voicemail and email seeking reaction to McAuliffe’s comments. Rinehart said he had not received any feedback from transportation officials, including “through the backchannels.”

Design work for the road is 40 to 50 percent complete, Rinehart said.

In the permit application and elsewhere, VDOT has said construction in “non-jurisdictional” areas not subject to the federal oversight would begin in spring 2014.

“The permit application to the corps is going to be a big driving factor,” Rinehart said.

“The picture will get clearer when we get to more finality on that. I don’t think anybody wants to start construction and then have to redo things … we want to make sure that everybody’s in agreement.”

VDOT’s billing schedule indicates the majority of earthwork, for excavation and embankments, would be billed in 2015, with sub grade treatment plus base and pavement formation ramping up 2016 and 2017.

The total cost indicated in the schedule of $1.393 billion is “the lion’s share of the work,” Rinehart said, though VDOT is spending additional money on environmental studies that are ongoing, he added

Payments to Mobility Partners come from the funding corporation set up to handle financing, including selling bonds.

VDOT has said it’s providing $903 million for the $1.4 billion highway, and The Virginia Port Authority is chipping in $250 million.

The remainder of the cost would be borne by Mobility Partners, which would also operate and maintain the road, collecting tolls ranging from 6.7 cents a mile for cars to 21.3 cents a mile for trucks. Vehicles traveling the entire 55-mile stretch of highway would pay $3.69 and $11.72, respectively, with annual toll increases of 3.5 percent per year built in to the contract.

On Tuesday, Del. Rick Morris (R-64) told The Tidewater News that he recently had a conversation with a VDOT official, and this is what he learned.

“Here’s the reality. The Army Corps of Engineers initially approved the wetlands impact study, and then based on that, the commonwealth went forward with the plan to do the contract, design, etc,” he said.

It’s Morris’s understanding that in an unprecedented move, the Army Corps of Engineers on its own accord decided to require a second impact study, which they must approve for the project.

“This is not due to redesign. They just decided to do it,” he said. “So VDOT is working through the Federal Highway Commission to ask that the review be expedited, and is being diligent about it.”

Another concern of the delegate’s is that apparently the governor-elect “doesn’t want to pay contracts to go forward. But the commonwealth is bound by contracts, and this puts Virginia in a precarious position in honoring contracts.

“But the possibility is the Army will deny the permit.”

“I believe politics are involved,” continued Morris, noting that several localities are invested in the highway project.

The road, he said, will be good not just for the Port of Virginia in Hampton Road, but also the commonwealth as a whole, and pointed to the potential amount of economic development and jobs.


Stephen H. Cowles, staff writer at The Tidewater News, contributed to this story.