No legacy here

Published 10:26 am Friday, December 20, 2013

With Gov. Bob McDonnell preparing to pack his things and vacate the Executive Mansion in January, Virginians might be wondering how he’ll be remembered.

The governor and his staff have been busy in recent weeks compiling a 52-page book listing achievements ranging from memorable to forgettable for which the administration takes at least partial credit.

Folks in Hampton Roads won’t need a book to remember the governor. They’ll be reminded of him each time they pass the electronic tolling equipment at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels or find themselves stuck in the long line of cars trying to avoid the new tunnel tolls by using the high-rise bridge.

Perhaps Elizabeth River Crossings — the private consortium for which McDonnell’s sweetheart tolling deal promises profit margins of at least 3.5 percent a year for the next 58 years — will name one of its toll plazas for the governor who forced the tolls on the people of Hampton Roads.

What seems less and less likely, though, is that McDonnell will be remembered as the father of a new Route 460. Even more than adding tunnel capacity, replacing Route 460 with an interstate-quality, limited-access highway was always a signature project for McDonnell’s administration — and even more than the tunnel expansion, the Route 460 project has been one that left everybody scratching their heads.

Tolls would be high, 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 into the contract. And the benefits to local residents could be hard to recognize.

Still, though, McDonnell pressed on with the plan, and the contractor partnering with the Virginia Department of Transportation has wasted no time getting the project underway, having already spent $192 million on designs and engineering.

But the federal government could put the brakes on the whole project. With the recent revelation that construction of the new road could disturb 474 acres of wetlands — far more than any other road project in the commonwealth’s modern history — the Corps of Engineers has raised serious questions about whether it will give its blessing.

And now the Federal Highway Administration has become involved, announcing plans for another round of public hearings on the project connected to a supplemental environmental impact statement spurred by the wetlands discovery. The new impact statement will look at a broad array of options for the road, including some that were previously dismissed by the McDonnell administration.

It seems a safe bet that when area residents get a chance to speak about the project, they are likely just as opposed to it as when they last spoke. And with the weapon of a potential environmental disaster at hand this time, the opponents have a much better chance of being heard this time around.

McDonnell is sure to leave a legacy when his term as governor expires in January. But it looks increasingly unlikely that legacy will have anything to do with Route 460.