Road to nowhere

Published 11:10 am Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Whatever it is in the end, Route 460 will not be the biggest disaster in the history of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration.

McDonnell had clearly hoped Route 460 would be a signature project contributing to his legacy as the governor who finally broke through a generation of gridlock to overhaul Virginia’s transportation funding mechanisms and set the commonwealth on the road to easy commutes and trouble-free highways.

So by any measure, it would be hard to count as anything but a disaster the announcement last week by Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration that it was suspending all work on the road and shutting down the contract signed by the previous administration until a necessary permit can be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Consider all of the factors involved in that decision, and the disaster just grows in proportion.

The commonwealth has spent $300 million on the project to build a new Route 460, yet not a mile of concrete has been poured. That money was spent despite the objections of just about everybody who had any geographic connection to the highway and even as McDonnell’s closest friends in the legislature were shaking their heads in befuddlement over the former governor’s stubborn insistence on pushing the project through.

Even with a commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars from the commonwealth, the project, which operates under the controversial public-private partnership arrangement, would still require the road’s users to pay high tolls for many years in order to finance the project and profit the private developer.

McDonnell pressed the project even in light of the knowledge that the money Virginia was contributing to it could have substantially reduced the new tolls on the Elizabeth River tunnels. That’s how important the project was to him.

So the moment McDonnell’s successor in the governor’s mansion began to consider shutting down the Route 460 project, McDonnell’s transportation legacy was in jeopardy. A disaster, indeed.

Yet with the legal problems McDonnell and his wife are facing and their complete fall from political grace within the Republican Party, both in Virginia and at the national level, even a disaster as complete as the Route 460 debacle could wind up being a footnote in his career.

Unfortunately that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a disaster for Virginia, which has now spent $300 million on its own road to nowhere.