Have your say on Route 460 while there’s an opportunity

Published 9:53 am Saturday, December 21, 2013

by Matthew Ward

After many folks voiced valid concerns about how the Virginia Department of Transportation is going about developing a new toll road between Suffolk and Petersburg, the Federal Highway Administration’s recent announcement of a public input period on the way forward offers them an opportunity to have those and other concerns duly considered.

The main thing that seems to have stuck in the craw of the populace is the expenditure of taxes on a project about which the feds seem very skeptical.

VDOT’s forward motion with a project that still requires U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval for the destruction of wetlands is like laying the foundation for a house before the city has issued a building certificate.

VDOT says various things in its defense. A record of decision approving the project was sealed over five years ago. A contract has already been signed with a private partner and a funding mechanism approved by state transportation commissioners. The Corps’ permitting process necessitates shelling out cash in order to get the geotechnical and design information needed for it.

But the fact remains that the federal authority may yet trump the state by declaring that its do-or-die toll road is simply too environmentally damaging relative to its contribution to the public good.

A lot of money will have been wasted if that happens — more than $200 million and counting.

Proponents of the road have some strong arguments. History shows Hampton Roads regularly finds itself in the trajectory of extreme storms, and a better evacuation route could save countless lives. Driving the current Route 460 isn’t something one undertakes without his full range of senses well intact. It would be a way for Virginia’s poorer interior to reap more benefit from the booming port. The military could make good use of it for the benefit of the entire nation.

However, returning to the local government analogy, when developers want to build something big, or sometimes even modest, they will confer with local planning officials early to make sure their application starts off on the right foot.

How much early dialogue occurred between VDOT and the Corps is unclear, but whatever the amount, it doesn’t appear to have been enough.

The highway administration’s public input session runs through Wednesday, Jan. 15. Following the public input program, the Corps could approve the project without change, which seems unlikely, considering the environmental issues; change the plan significantly; require more evaluation; or force the project into litigation.

For more information about the public comment period, visit www.federalregister.gov/a/2013-29836.

MATTHEW WARD is a staff writer and columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is matthew.ward@suffolknewsherald.com.