No longer in the shadows

Published 9:48 am Friday, January 16, 2015

There’s an old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Folks who have been following the saga involving plans to upgrade Route 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg got a big reminder of the truth of the adage on Monday, when officials from the Virginia Department of Transportation came back with yet another alternative for the project.

After years of pursuing an entirely new road to replace the old one for the 55-mile stretch between Suffolk and I-85, and after spending $300 million on a failed attempt to start that project without having received the necessary environmental approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, VDOT engineers have discovered an alternative that will accomplish most of what the previous plan would have done — and at a fraction of the cost, both now and in the future.

In contrast to the go-it-alone and keep-everyone-else-in-the-dark strategy of VDOT under the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who treated the Route 460 update as a linchpin of his transportation legacy, VDOT engineers worked closely with the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop the new alternative for the road.

The new plan would change just 17 miles of the highway, including a new stretch between Suffolk and Windsor and renovations and upgrades to a stretch between Windsor and Zuni.

But the differences go far beyond just the scope of the project. The new plan would cost between $375 and $425 million, as opposed to at least $1.4 billion for the old plan. The new plan would displace about 52 acres of wetlands, compared to more than 470. The new plan would require no tolls, compared to tolls that were expected to start at $3.69 for cars and $11.72 for trucks and then increase annually. The new plan would affect 22 property owners, not hundreds.

At the same time, the new plan would accomplish much of what state officials have said they’d like a new road to do for Virginia. It would nearly triple the number of vehicles that could be evacuated from Hampton Roads each hour in the case of an emergency, officials said Tuesday. And it would reduce the crash rate of the existing road by 41 percent by separating local and regional traffic.

There’s still a reasonable discussion that needs to take place regarding Route 460. Since one of the big problems users of the road face is its passage through the small towns west of Zuni, and since that problem would not be addressed under the new plan, is it possible that the best alternative would be to actually make no upgrades at all? Are the evacuation scenarios worrisome enough to justify spending another third of a billion dollars or more on improvements?

The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but one thing seems sure: Those answers are likely to be more reliable, now that VDOT and the administration are no longer working on this project on their own and in the shadows.