Report sheds objective light

Published 9:48 pm Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In a report that’s full of reasons for frustration, there’s one bright spot coming out of a new social, economic and environmental study of the five construction alternatives for upgrading Route 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg: There is at least a passing chance the whole project could be dumped altogether.

It’s almost certain that any project surviving the new round of studies will look very different from the one the Virginia Department of Transportation embarked upon with a multinational corporate conglomerate. Behind the insistence of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the state agency pushed the project along to the point where nearly $300 million was spent, despite the fact that not a shovelful of dirt had been turned and despite the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not issued the permits necessary for it.

The former project was halted when it was discovered that the area of wetlands that could be disturbed along the corridor was twice as large as the original plans had estimated. With that information finally public, the state had little choice but to heed the Corps’ repeated warnings that there was a good chance the project would never be approved as proposed. By that time, the bills for various pre-construction activities had soared past a quarter of a billion dollars.

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But there was even worse news from the new study released this week. To begin with, wetlands impacts for the preferred alternative — construction of a parallel four-lane, tolled highway — are far worse than any of the previous estimates suggested. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cost is also far higher — about 30 percent — rising to about $1.8 billion in real dollars, without even considering the cost of borrowing that money.

One bit of comparatively good news is that the overlooked option of simply improving the existing road is getting harder and harder to ignore. The study pegs the cost associated with that alternative at $974 million, which seems like a bargain compared to the multi-billion dollar costs for the other alternatives. The simple-improvement option also would disturb the least wetlands of any of the construction alternatives.

But there’s reason to wonder whether any of the construction alternatives is necessary at this point. One of the primary justifications put forward by the McDonnell administration for the necessity of the new road was that Route 460 is a primary evacuation route in case of a hurricane or other natural disaster.

But Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration has taken a fresh look at Tidewater evacuation scenarios and has concluded the full-scale evacuations envisioned when the Route 460 plan was designed might not be necessary or safe in the event of an actual disaster. They’ve recommended changes that would reduce the number of cars on the road during a disaster, thereby calling into question that particular justification for Route 460 improvements.

There are still arguments for improving the road, and some of them cannot be easily ignored. Increasing traffic from the Hampton Roads ports, for example, is a definite problem that is likely to intensify through the coming years.

But the new draft report sheds the light of objectivity on the matter. And in that light, perhaps a solution can be found that will not leave Virginia indebted to — and at the mercy of — another toll-collecting conglomerate for decades to come.