A worrisome development on Route 460

Published 9:32 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Now that another organization representing prominent business interests in Hampton Roads has asked the state to abandon Gov. Bob McDonnell’s misguided and quixotic dream of making a new Route 460 the centerpiece of his transportation legacy in Virginia, there’s reason to question not only the project’s future, but also the true cost of pursuing the dream.

Despite the advice of some of Hampton Roads’ most influential legislators, despite the fact that regional planners deemed other highway projects more important and despite the surveys that showed citizens firmly against building a new Route 460, McDonnell pledged from the time of his campaign for the governor’s office to make replacing the old road between Suffolk and Petersburg a high priority in his administration’s transportation plan.

True to his word, soon after taking office — and even in the midst of a recession that was requiring historic cuts in state government — McDonnell pressed the Virginia Department of Transportation to re-start the stalled process of finding a collaborator for a public-private partnership to build the new road and develop a plan to maintain and operate it through leases and tolls.

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Even when it was clear those tolls would range from $5.50 to $11 for cars — and more for tractor trailers — he pressed for the process to continue. Even when it was revealed the state would have to chip in at least $500 million to help any private company finish the project, he pushed ahead.

And finally communities along Route 460 were convinced the governor was serious about his plan, whether it made sense as a way of easing traffic congestion or not. So, in the best tradition of using lemons to make lemonade, the new Route 460 has become a marketing point in economic development presentations that tout Suffolk and Isle of Wight as potential locations for companies looking for intermodal shipping facilities.

With a limited access highway expected in the near future, along with the existing rail line the road would parallel all the way to Petersburg, the new Route 460 is now a vital part of the transportation equation for Western Tidewater, where trucking and shipping companies are expected to fill the east-west corridors with container traffic in the years to come.

Considering how much the region has put into the pot at McDonnell’s urging, officials should be concerned about a letter last month from the Hampton Roads Partnership asking the state’s secretary of transportation to abandon the Route 460 project and move all of its funds to an account for Patriot’s Crossing. The proposed four-lane bridge-tunnel system between Interstate 564 in Norfolk and the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel would provide a third crossing of the Elizabeth River and provide much-needed traffic relief in the core of Hampton Roads, the letter states.

The political pressure to abandon the Route 460 project will only increase as traffic congestion gets worse. With so much at stake — for Suffolk, for Western Tidewater, for Hampton Roads and for the commonwealth — it’s time for the governor to confirm his intentions regarding Route 460 or let the people of Western Tidewater know how he proposes they handle all the traffic they will soon face as a result of taking his original plans to heart.