Environmental group offers 460 alternative
Published 11:10 am Saturday, January 23, 2016
In response to the proposal for Route 460 put forth by the Virginia Department of Transportation, a multi-state organization has just offered an alternative that’s intended to be more of a renovation to the existing road rather than building a new path.
Southern Environmental Law Center has released a report that proposes upgrading 460 now from Suffolk to Zuni with what it claims would have fewer impacts and cost less than VDOT’s plan to build a northern bypass around Windsor.
For many years previously, the transportation agency had offered a 55-mile tolled road going from Suffolk to Petersburg running south of the existing 460. The multi-million cost and public opposition aside, environmental concerns ultimately halted that idea. To the surprise of everyone in early 2015, VDOT came back with a non-tolled 17-mile bypass going north of the town. Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution of support in the hopes that would give the county some say-so in the plan. Windsor Council, on the other hand, has opposed it, claiming that alternative would ruin the town’s economy, and has environmental and safety issues as well.
In late November, VDOT sent its plan to the Corps for permits. From Nov. 30 to Jan. 20, the public had the opportunity to submit written comments to the ACOE. During the Jan. 12 Windsor Council meeting, VDOT representatives attended to answer questions from both the panel and public in a two-hour session.
In the press release, director of SELC’s Land and Community Program Trip Pollard wrote, “This new proposal is still far too costly and destructive, and it cannot be justified given the relatively modest transportation needs of this lightly traveled corridor. With far less environmentally damaging alternatives available, this route cannot be permitted under federal law.”
Citing the Clean Water Act, the release states that the Army Corps of Engineers can only give a permit for “the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” on a project.
“Improving the existing plan made more sense,” Pollard said in a follow-up phone interview. The senior attorney hoped that when the 55-mile plan was stopped, that would be the end of it. Involved with transportation issues for 25 years — nearly 15 on the 460 — he said he met with VDOT reps on the new plan. But the more he looked at it, “this project is flawed as well. I continue to be frustrated. Why do we keep trying these huge solutions? That’s why we decided to bite the bullet and hire an engineer ourselves to take a look itself.
Walter Kulash, a transportation engineer with 40-plus years of experience was picked; Pollard said he’s done worked on projects in Alabama and Charlottesville, which is the SELC’s headquarters.
“The availability of cost-effective, far less destructive options to upgrade the existing highway, such as the alternative proposed in this report, demonstrates that building 12 miles of new highway bypasses is not the ‘least environmentally damaging practicable alternative’ for this project,” Pollard wrote. “The Corps of Engineers should reject VDOT’s proposal, and the state should finally focus on effective, targeted improvements to Route 460.”
Pollard said that Kulash thinks there are plenty of opportunities to solve existing traffic safety issues
and that they could lead to redevelopment/revitalization of the town.
“We hired an engineer to help prove that VDOT doesn’t need that standard,” he said. “I hope the Corps won’t approve.”
The report and many pages of comments were filed on Wednesday in time for for ACOE’s deadline, Pollard said, adding that he looks forward to talking to the Corps.
Messages were left on Friday morning with VDOT Environmental Project Manager Angel Deem, but by press time had not yet returned calls. VDOT’s response will be published when it becomes available.
Windsor Town Manager Michael Stallings had no comment at this time, but said that issue would be discussed during a work session on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in Council chambers.
In response to a request for comment, bypass opponent Brenda Peters of Five Forks Road emailed the following:
“I greatly appreciate the continued support the SELC and Trip Pollard have given to this serious issue. Their dedication and attention to detail are immeasurable. The press release and SELC’s comments on VDOT’s permit application clearly reflect the problems and issues that both the Windsor Town Council and residents have repeatedly voiced. The fact that the proposed Northern Bypass was not the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative” (LEDPA) was a huge factor in the opposition to the proposed alternative. VDOT’s own Draft SEIS did, indeed, indicate that Alternative 4 was the LEDPA and we have continually questioned VDOT’s statements to the contrary.
“The report prepared by Walter Kulash is both welcomed and needed. It clearly shows that improvements to the existing Route 460 are doable. During VDOT’s presentation to the Windsor Town Council on Jan. 13, Michael Tugman explained how the footprint for the proposed alternative had been reduced in order to decrease impacts. Afterward, I wondered why they could not do the same on the existing Route 460. The Kulash Report shows how footprint reductions can be used to create a workable alternative. It is my hope that the USACE will deny the permit and that the Kulash Report will be used a viable guide for future proposals.”
Mayor Carita Richardson is quite impressed with SELC and Kulash’s counter proposal.
“I think this “practicable” modified version of Alternative 4 that uses only 88 feet of right-of-way is excellent,” she wrote in an email. “Unlike the plan offered by VDOT (Alternative 4) to redo the old 460, it impacts very few businesses in Windsor. It also gives us a center turn lane for the public to access our businesses, and that lane will act as a buffer between oncoming lanes of traffic. That addresses both the safety issues and a more efficient movement of traffic through the town. It supports local economic development, in particular the intermodal park, with a road that is safe and more accessible than the northern bypass. Best of all, IT COSTS A LOT LESS AND IMPACTS FEWER WETLANDS.
“Redoing the old 460 was the recommendation of the Second Environmental Study (SEIS) because of these two important facts. That begs the question, ‘Why was this not given as Alternative 4 by VDOT because it is much better than taking 105 feet of right-of-way through Town?’ NEPA guidelines require them to present the “best” examples of each alternative to be used in the decision process. Obviously VDOT did not do this with Alternative 4. Their design ensured that Alternative 4 would not be chosen because it would have destroyed too many businesses. In March of 2015, the Windsor Town Council passed a resolution supporting this option of a center turn lane.
“The Army Corps is required to choose the option with the “least environmental impact that is practicable.” That is clearly NOT the northern bypass so they should not issue the permit. The cost estimate for the northern bypass plan has already increased with engineers saying that it will cost more than half a billion dollars. People were outraged at how much money was wasted on this project at the beginning because VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board did not have all the information needed. If they now ignore this modified Alternative 4 and waste even more taxpayer dollars, there should be a huge public outcry.”
The full report is accessible at www.southernenvironment.org. Go to News and Press to find “New Report Offers Less Costly and Less Destructive Plan for U.S. Route 460.”