What a waste of money

Published 10:30 am Monday, January 23, 2017

Virginia’s long dalliance with squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on a road nobody but state officials really wanted may finally have come to an end.

The state’s proposed $450-million Route 460 project from Suffolk to Zuni would have included a new road from this city to just west of Windsor, a bypass around that town and improvements to the existing road from just west of Windsor to a point a mile west of Zuni.

This was the fallback plan state transportation officials put forward after Gov. Terry McAuliffe canceled a more ambitious plan to build a new, tolled road from Suffolk to Petersburg. That original plan fell apart when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made it abundantly clear that the bigger project — conceived and pushed through by the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell — would never clear the necessary environmental hurdles.

But the first plan still cost taxpayers of the commonwealth nearly $300 million, without a single shovelful of dirt having been turned.

McDonnell had pushed that plan over the objections of communities along the route, over the (quiet) objections of legislators from his own party and over, as it turned out, the warnings of the Corps about the environmental problems it presented.

Instead of recognizing, however, that a new Route 460 is the great white whale of Virginia transportation projects, McAuliffe’s transportation department set about to come up with a new plan. This one passed the Corps of Engineers’ tests, but it was roundly panned by Isle of Wight County and the town of Windsor, and it received only tepid support from other local governments.

In fact, not one local government stepped up to sponsor the project before the Commonwealth Transportation Board. That should have marked the end of the road for this project, but this administration pressed on with a project that would have left Route 460 just as broken west of Zuni as it is today.

On Tuesday, the CTB learned that the project scored so low on the state’s new Smart Scale assessment program that it fell behind 13 other projects in the Hampton Roads area that scored higher but also failed to receive funding. Smart Scale scores projects based on how they are expected to improve congestion mitigation, safety, economic development and other factors.

State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne tried to make the best of the situation during Tuesday’s hearing. “There’s been a lot of criticism,” he said. “It had merit; what it didn’t have merit on is compared to everything else.”

Perhaps that’s so. But funding for transportation projects, like funding for anything else, is always a matter of comparing relative merits. And just about anybody in Virginia could see that the merits of this project did not come close to stacking up against the merits of so many other transportation needs in Virginia.

Taxpayers in the commonwealth will never be able to recoup the $300 million spent on McDonnell’s boondoggle, and the untold cost of designing and promoting McAuliffe’s version is money similarly poured into a hole. Perhaps, at least, we can all take solace in the hope that this project is well and truly dead for the foreseeable future.

What a waste of time and resources.