Almost reasonable

Published 9:31 pm Wednesday, January 15, 2014

It took the intervention of the federal government and the inauguration of a new governor to make it happen, but the funding spigot for the proposed new Route 460 — a spigot whose handle had appeared to be stuck in the full-on position — has been turned off, or at least cranked down to a bare trickle.

None too soon for the taxpayers of Virginia, who are already on the hook for more than $200 million in expenses associated with the new toll road. And none too soon for the people of Western Tidewater, who would have faced generations of steep tolls to pay for the road that would replace the current span connecting Suffolk and Petersburg.

Capt. Ahab had his great white whale. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell had his Route 460 project. Neither man was inclined to let anyone interfere with the attainment of his goal.

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Even the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not issued a necessary permit for the project did not dissuade the McDonnell administration’s Department of Transportation from vigorously pursuing the $1.4-billion road. Similarly without effect were the Corps’ repeated and very public warnings that the vast wetlands that would be disturbed by the project made it unlikely the road’s proposed route would ever be permitted.

Still, McDonnell pressed on, and money flowed into the project, perhaps under the assumption that there would come a point when taxpayers had passed the point of no return on Route 460, and not even a change in administrations would stop the work.

On Tuesday, however, with a new administration in Richmond and McDonnell consigned once again to the life of a private citizen, Virginia received the news that — except for the cost of pursuing permits — public spending on the new Route 460 would cease. With permits unlikely for the road as it was originally configured, it’s likely transportation engineers will have to reconsider the entire project, examining, for instance, whether most or all of its goals could be attained through a project of smaller scale.

The answers to that question and others will help determine just how much money has been wasted on this whale hunt of Bob McDonnell’s.

Prior to this situation with Route 460, it would have been hard to imagine being pleased with the possibility that $200 million in tax money had effectively been poured into a hole in the swamp. But when taxpayers recognize just how much McDonnell’s administration was willing to sacrifice for this project — and how shaky the whole prospect was from the start — a $200-million loss might seem almost reasonable.