Aubrey Layne was acutely aware of the wetlands permitting issues afflicting the U.S. 460 highway project before assuming his position as Secretary of Transportation in January 2014. As chairman of the funding corporation that sold bonds to investors, he had had to disclose in September 2013 that the Virginia Department of Transportation had not yet acquired the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the 55-mile highway. That’s one reason why, when he took the McAuliffe administration cabinet post, he acted so quickly to shut down the project — he’d been stewing over the matter for four months.
In an article yesterday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch gave a pretty good account of the testimony Layne gave to the House Appropriations Committee. The story made clear that the “secretary’s office” — led by former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton — was largely responsible for the decisions that created the debacle, which cost Virginia taxpayers roughly $300 million for work that will never be done or needed. But the T-D overlooked what I considered to be a critical topic: What role, if any, did then-deputy highway commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick play in the debacle?
I was able to glean a few more details in an interview with Layne this afternoon when, among other topics, I pressed him on Kilpatrick’s role in the policy meltdown. In a post this morning, I noted that Kilpatrick had made a presentation about U.S. 460 to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in mid-2013 that omitted the crucial fact that the project had not obtained the needed wetlands permits. Assured that there was no problem, the CTB approved the project financing.
Since then, Kilpatrick has been elevated to Virginia Highway Commissioner.
Layne defended the actions of VDOT personnel during the McDonnell administration. On multiple occasions, he said, VDOT officials went to the “secretary’s office” with issues relating to the wetlands permit. “Every time,” he said, “they got orders to keep on going.”
Without getting into specifics, Layne said that Kilpatrick and VDOT did “balk” at times at what they were told to do. “There was some pushback.” But Connaughton was determined to advance the project, which was the top transportation priority of Governor Bob McDonnell. While Kilpatrick did not inform the CTB of all the relevant facts, Layne said, he was acting as instructed. Layne is confident that Kilpatrick was not driving the decision-making process and does not bear responsibility for one of the biggest managerial screw-ups in Virginia government history.
I belabor this point only because I argued this morning that it is important to ascertain Kilpatrick’s role in the U.S. 460 fiasco. McDonnell’s people are all gone, but Kilpatrick now serves as a senior official of the McAuliffe administration. Unless new information surfaces, I consider Layne’s comments to be the final word on the matter.
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