Better no plan than a bad one

Published 10:23 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The good news for folks worried about how the latest permutation of the U.S. Route 460 update will affect Suffolk and the rest of Western Tidewater is that they have an extra 15 days to register their concerns about the proposed changes to the road.

The bad news is that — judging from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s record and its most recent (and unannounced) changes to the plan — there’s a very good chance those concerns will be ignored, just as VDOT has ignored pretty much all the opinions and advice against the road since former Gov. Bob McDonnell first proposed it as a new, 55-mile tolled road running parallel to the existing one between Suffolk and Petersburg.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced earlier this month that it would extend the period for public comment about the new, more modest version of Route 460 improvements. The Corps declined to extend the public comment period the entire 60 days that Windsor Mayor Carita Richardson had sought or to add another public hearing in Windsor to its deliberations.

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What’s more frustrating for Windsor officials, however, is that yet another change appears to have been made to the routing of the segment of new road proposed between Suffolk and two miles west of Windsor. And that change was made without notifying the folks in Windsor about it. Richardson and her staff discovered it only after asking for a large version of the project map from VDOT Environmental Project Manager Angel Deem.

What’s significant about the change is that the newest iteration of the project would completely bypass the town, without providing an interchange allowing easy access by the tenants of Windsor’s Shirley T. Holland Industrial Park. Only after contacting Location Studies Project Manager Caleb Parks did Richardson learn VDOT had nixed the interchange because of the wetlands impact that interchange would have.

The matter of interchanges along the new road has been a sticking point for the Route 460 project since the beginning. A town like Windsor has much to lose if its industrial and commercial taxpayers do not have easy access to the transportation grid, and if their customers do not have easy access to the businesses from the road.

The transportation department had every reason to recognize that killing the Windsor interchange would be a deal breaker for Isle of Wight County, and, indeed, Richardson told Windsor Weekly that she understands it’s likely the county will withdraw its support for the project because of the change.

Having left the impression that they sneaked the change through, VDOT and the Corps of Engineers have no reason to expect folks to trust the process again.

Two different governors — first McDonnell and now Terry McAuliffe — have tried to push through this project, which will do little to ease congestion or improve evacuation capability for Hampton Roads. Two different administrations have tried to force an expensive project that is likely to be detrimental to the economy of the communities it spans. Two different Commonwealth Transportation Boards have turned deaf ears to the people in those communities when they raised their objections and pointed out the folly of pursuing this project.

It’s time for the area’s legislative leaders to assert themselves in Richmond. When the General Assembly convenes in January, members of Western Tidewater’s delegation should unite behind a resolution calling for VDOT to scrap its plans for Route 460.

Better to have no plan at all for the road than one that hurts the communities it crosses, while achieving none of the purposes it was to have served in the first place.