New Route 460 loses its cheerleader

Published 9:38 pm Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A new Route 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg might go down in the history books as a victim of Virginia’s one-term limit for governors.

One always got the feeling that the toll road — welcomed by economic developers, despised by environmentalists and fiscal conservatives — would materialize only if the first dirt were turned by the time its champion, Gov. Bob McDonnell, left office. That’s not happening, as the clock winds down on McDonnell’s tenure and a critical regulatory body, the Army Corps of Engineers, withholds its blessing of the road.

McDonnell’s successor, Terry McAuliffe, seems decidedly lukewarm about 460, saying last week that no more state money should be spent until a federal permit has been issued.

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That’s a prudent approach in the short term — and an easy call politically. The McDonnell administration’s tunnel vision on 460 had caused bipartisan heartburn for those who wondered, Why the rush?

“I think we kind of got ahead of ourselves,” Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told a reporter last week. “We should have gotten the environmental permits in hand first before we started spending money. It is a needed project at some point, but it would not have fallen on my top list of allocating dollars.”

Jones’ opinion matters even more now that he’s been tabbed to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The tougher question for McAuliffe, Jones and other lawmakers comes later, if the Corps eventually blesses the project, perhaps by requiring a different route than the current one, which purportedly would harm 474 acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands.

Is Virginia too heavily invested in the 460 project, having already spent $192 million on planning and design, to turn back now? Or is that a small price to bail out of a $1.4 billion expenditure that critics say is unnecessary?

From a purely selfish Suffolk perspective, it’s hard not to root for the highway’s fruition.

It would solidify Suffolk’s position as the gateway to the Port of Hampton Roads and likely make Windsor, just up the road in Isle of Wight, a boom town, if it isn’t already destined to be so.

The state and regional case for a new Route 460 is shakier. Even some Hampton Roads leaders question the value of the project among many competing transportation priorities, such as a third crossing over the Hampton Roads harbor.

Political feet will get colder when McDonnell, who made Route 460 his signature highway initiative and took it further than many believed possible, leaves office in a few weeks.

Count me as unsurprised if it never becomes more than an unfulfilled promise of another one-term governor.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is