Corps issues permit for 460

Published 9:52 am Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By Tracy Agnew
Special to The Tidewater News

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued a permit for the U.S. Route 460 project.

The current proposal for the $450 million project includes a new, four-lane, divided highway between U.S. Route 58 in Suffolk to west of Windsor, including a bypass. From west of Windsor to one mile west of Zuni, the existing road would be reconstructed and upgraded to a four-lane divided highway, with a new bridge across the Blackwater River.

The permit from the Corps of Engineers was needed because the project would affect 40 acres of wetlands, as well as numerous streams and tributaries. However, there are still further steps before the project actually gets built.

Trip Pollard, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he’s doubtful the project will make it through those steps, which are necessary to fund the project.

“There’s an overwhelming feeling of disappointment that this is moving forward,” Pollard said. “We are deeply disappointed that the McAuliffe administration pursued this unnecessary and destructive proposal, and that the Corps of Engineers has issued a permit for it. They both have failed the public on this one.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center is an environmental group opposed to the project in its current form. The group advocates improving Route 460 within its existing right of way.

Pollard said he thinks the project will fail the tests of the state’s new Smart Scale system, which uses objective data to prioritize projects for funding.

“It’s hard to imagine this project scoring well enough under Smart Scale to warrant funding given its hefty price tag, the environmental damage it would cause, and its limited benefits in relieving traffic congestion,” Pollard said.

“We’re still hopeful it doesn’t score well, and we can get back to where we should have been all along.”

VDOT and Corps of Engineers officials did not respond to calls Monday afternoon.

The saga of Route 460 has been a long one, beginning with the governorship of Bob McDonnell. Under him, about $300 million was spent on much larger, 55-mile version of the project without a single shovelful of dirt being turned.

Upon taking office in 2014, McAuliffe suspended work on the road and shut down the contract signed by the previous administration until the Corps of Engineers permit could be obtained. A year later, the new plan was revealed. The town of Windsor was among the entities opposed to it, as it created a bypass around the town.

“As we have argued for over a decade, the needs of this corridor — such as improving safety and alleviating flooding issues — can be effectively addressed through far less costly, and far less damaging, upgrades of the existing highway,” Pollard said.

“Under federal law, the Corps isn’t supposed to issue a permit unless a proposal is the ‘least environmentally damaging practicable alternative’ and its construction would be in the ‘public interest.’ This project fails on both accounts.”

Windsor Mayor Carita Richardson, who has been among the most vocal opponents of VDOT’s proposal, offered this comment on Tuesday afternoon:

“As mayor of the Town of Windsor, I am deeply disappointed that the Army Corps has issued a permit for the 460 project with a northern bypass around Windsor. There is no interchange in the town to give our residents and businesses local access to the bypass for evacuation. This project does not meet the purpose of a safe evacuation route out of South Hampton Roads because it does not address the worst area of flooding west of Ivor, the location of the tidal basin for the Blackwater River. Supporting statements from the Army Corps indicate that this should not be a problem because vehicles can use routes 258 and 10 to go in other directions at Windsor. The problem with that hypothesis is that these roads will be flooded if route 460 has flooding issues.

“There are several places on the old route 460 in Windsor that are prone to flooding. Building a bypass to the north of Windsor with no interchange in the town means that flooding on the old 460 could result in trapping some residents with no way out. If the old 460 is flooded, there will still be only 4 lanes to evacuate after spending half a billion more dollars of taxpayer money. (If you put in a center turn lane and upgraded the old 460 in Windsor, we would always have 5 lanes available.) The half a billion dollars does not include the $200 to $300 million already spent, the bonds to repay, and about $15 million spent on Environmental Impact studies and documents for the bypass.

“If the old 460 is not flooded, then there will be a massive backup west of Windsor where eight lanes of traffic have to go into 4 (or 3 if you keep one lane open for emergencies). During a major evacuation, vehicles will back up down to Bowers Hill, Chesapeake and beyond. This could create a dangerous situation and may prevent residents from other cities getting to safety.

“So the question is why VDOT and the Army Corps are going to spend so much taxpayer money that does not result in a safe evacuation route and may actually create more problems. The Environmental Impact Study shows that upgrading 460 is much cheaper and does not impact so many wetlands. “VDOT could take the money left over and redo the area prone to flooding west of Ivor to ensure a safe evacuation route to Petersburg where traffic could be dispersed on I-85 and I-95.

“Unfortunately, this is only one of many problems with this project.”

STEPHEN H. COWLES, staff writer, contributed to this story.

TRACY AGNEW is the news editor of The Suffolk News-Herald.