True cost of McDonnell’s Folly

Published 5:15 pm Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thanks to former Gov. Bob McDonnell, every person in your household is on the hook for $25 and change to pay for contract costs associated with startup costs for a road you will never see. In fact, based on the latest census estimates, if the $210-million settlement state officials negotiated with a multinational conglomerate for shutting down work on a new Route 460 were divided among every person in Virginia, from newborns to homebound senior citizens, each person would be responsible for the same $25.

Of course, that’s not how taxes work. In fact, a relative few people across the commonwealth will be responsible for the cost of canceling a contract that never should have been signed by the McDonnell administration.

Call it the cost of hubris.

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McDonnell went against the desires of the people who would be most affected by the new road and its steep tolls, against the recommendations of leaders within his own Republican Party and against the very restraining influence of common sense in his headlong pursuit of a new road from Suffolk to Petersburg. He would not be deterred by polls, by good business practices or even by the federal government, whose Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly warned that approval of the wetlands permits necessary for the project would be exceedingly unlikely.

Now, following months of negotiations between the new administration and the consortium that had been contracted to design, build and operate the toll road, Virginia knows the true cost of McDonnell’s Folly.

The only positive spin on the matter is to recognize that the damage could have been worse. U.S. 460 Mobility Partners agreed to return $46 million to the taxpayers and to cancel another $103 million it could have charged under the terms of the contract. According to reporting by the Virginian-Pilot, the state also will be responsible for $50 million in interest payments on bonds that were sold to finance the project.

In return for its “largesse” regarding the contract, U.S. Mobility will be able to contend for future contracts in Virginia. One can only hope the commonwealth fields a better set of negotiators in that eventuality than the McDonnell administration sent when it was ironing out the details of the contract that put Virginia in this mess.

There are so many lessons for the commonwealth here, but this one should not be lost or swept under the rug: Virginia’s voters elect their representatives to be loyal and responsive to their needs, not to party loyalties.

Even as they offered faint criticism of the governor’s plan, Republicans in the state legislature failed to mount the sort of principled resistance to the boondoggle that taxpayers had every right to expect. The sense was that they didn’t want to discredit a governor from their own party by sullying the project upon which he was attempting to build his legacy. So they watched and waited, and now Virginia will make a huge contribution to a company’s bottom line, with absolutely nothing to show for it.

If there is to be any positive outcome to this frivolity, it must be a recognition of the high calling every Virginia legislator has to this commonwealth and her citizens. It must be a recommitment to substance over style, to statesmanship over partisanship.

Sadly, there’s little reason to believe legislators have gotten the message, and plans for a new, 17-mile, $425-million version of Route 460 now sit on a desk in Richmond awaiting a decision on whether to proceed. Taxpayers have some protection this time around, since the law now requires this project to compete with others from around the state for approval and funding. It’s a fact that offers cold comfort, but that might be the best Virginia can expect out of the Route 460 fiasco.