Fundamental step skipped on 460

Published 12:30 pm Saturday, February 21, 2015

With wind chill temperature values dropping below zero around most of Virginia this week, perhaps the Commonwealth Transportation Board chose on Thursday to put the cart before the horse in an effort to give the battered old nag a bit of shelter.

Whatever their reason for doing so, commissioners jumped the gun by approving a preliminary plan for a 17-mile upgrade to Route 460. There are many questions about the project that will be answered during the environmental review and permitting process. But one vital question seems to have been missed altogether in the rush to rescue an earlier version of the project that would have stretched 55 miles from Suffolk to Petersburg: Does the new version of the project meet the needs advanced for the project to begin with?

When the McAuliffe administration began looking at the former Route 460 project that had been left by its predecessor, it found that $300 million had been spent with no visible benefit and that there was little likelihood the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would ever approve the road, anyway, as it would have displaced hundreds of acres of wetlands.

Unfortunately, Virginia already had a poorly negotiated contract with U.S. 460 Mobility Partners to build and finance the $1.4-billion tolled highway. Canceling the contract would likely cost Virginia millions of dollars in penalties. And in that last statement rests the likely answer to the question of why transportation officials have plowed on ahead with an alternative plan that would upgrade and improve just 17 miles of the road. Offering Mobility Partners the contract on that work would, it is assumed, satisfy the terms of the contract and keep the commonwealth from being sued for damages.

So, while it might not exactly be fair to call the 17-mile segment a “road to nowhere,” it might be completely accurate to call it the “road to anywhere but court.”

But staying out of court is hardly a reason to spend more than a quarter of a billion dollars on a new road, even on one that’s likely to pass environmental muster. And it’s hard to see how the proposed new plan for Route 460 meets any of the needs originally set out as justification for doing the work in the first place.

Alleviating traffic congestion, providing a high-quality route for port-related traffic and improving evacuation routes have all been cited as reasons to upgrade the road. Whatever the new segment might accomplish toward those ends, it stands to reason that leaving the remainder of Route 460 untouched would mean the same problems that exist there today would continue to exist there. So, instead of a 55-mile problem road, there would remain a 38-mile problem road. Which hardly seems like much of an improvement.

Clearly the commonwealth would like to avoid throwing even more money down the highway hole dug by the McDonnell administration, but the proposed solution — to build a road that serves no purpose and contributes little of value — is hardly any better than paying penalties for a lousy contract.

It might be true that the 17-mile option presented by transportation officials to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday is the best of the new-road proposals from which they could choose. But before embarking down that road, Virginians deserved a definitive answer to the question of whether it should be built at all. By failing to effectively answer that question, transportation officials skipped a fundamental step in this expensive process.