VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode. The state has spent $300 million it may never recoup.
by James A. Bacon
Weeks after the release of the “Special Review of the U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements Project,” submitted last month to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, important questions remain about how the Commonwealth could have paid $250 million to US Mobility Partners, the design-build contractor on the $1.4 billion project, and run up another $50 million in expenses without turning a single spade of dirt. The Special Review is a dense and tangled document but one important theme comes through loud and clear: The wetlands controversy that caused the McAuliffe administration to suspend the project this March was bubbling on the front burner when the McDonnell administration put the project into overdrive two years ago. VDOT and the McDonnell transportation team had ample warning of the project’s problems and took no effective action to defuse them.
The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had been expressing reservations for years about the route preferred by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for the 55-mile highway project, and it reiterated those warnings repeatedly as McDonnell’s transportation team lined up funding for the project and signed a contract with US Mobility Partners to design and build the highway. The inability of VDOT to obtain a USACE wetlands permit on a timely basis prompted the McAuliffe administration to put the project on ice in March until the differences could be resolved.
The question before the public is how did VDOT find itself paying tens of millions of dollars monthly to US Mobility Partners to mobilize for a massive construction project while knowing that the USACE was unlikely to issue the necessary wetlands permits — indeed, without even having submitted the documentation to begin a formal USACE review! Unless we know what went wrong and take appropriate corrective measures, citizens and taxpayers have no assurance that comparable fiascos will not occur again in future mega-projects.
The Special Review, prepared by VDOT and the State Inspector General’s Office, is extremely cautious in drawing conclusions. But the report does provide a wealth of documentation, primarily in the form of emails involving senior VDOT employees and members of the Office of Transportation Public Private Partnership (OTP3) staff who structured the public-private partnership and negotiated the contract. As I noted in a past post, deciphering what transpired is like peeling back the layers of an onion. For now, I am focusing upon the onion peel documenting the wetlands controversy between VDOT and the Army Corps of Engineers.
A long running disagreement. The origins of the wetlands controversy predate the McDonnell administration. VDOT had been noodling the proposed Interstate-grade highway for years, and it had identified a preferred route, one that would swing north of the existing U.S. 460 highway, a four-lane highway with top speeds of 55 miles per hour interrupted by numerous stoplights and plagued with local traffic. VDOT argued that only a limited access highway could provide the mobility that was needed for trucks serving the Virginia ports and in the event of a hurricane evacuation, and that the existing route would be impractical to upgrade. But that was not a decision it could render on its own. VDOT’s appraisal had to pass muster with the USACE, which is tasked with ensuring that any route chosen is the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative.” The USACE preferred a route with a lower environmental impact, preferably one grafted onto the existing U.S. 460 with bypasses around the hamlets along the highway.
The Special Review correspondence between VDOT and USACE details the disagreement as far back as 2003. As the authors conclude from their review of the documentation:
The correspondence … indicates an ongoing, decade long, discussion between VDOT and the Corps over whether CBA-1 (VDOT’s preferred alternative) or CBA-2 (the Corps’ preference) was the best location for the 460 project. Although VDOT employees have indicated nothing unusual about this discussion, the length of the ongoing discussion seems unusual to us, particularly since no resolution as to an accepted route was reached.
The discussions were ongoing in 2012 when the McDonnell administration was moving heaven and earth to move the project forward. As various emails cited in the review make clear, Governor McDonnell regarded the Route 460 corridor as his “number 1 transportation priority,” and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton rode herd on the VDOT bureaucracy to meet the goal of closing the deal by the end of the year.
By mid-2012, Connaughton and VDOT were closing in on a deal structure for the public-private partnership but had not resolved the environmental issues. In a letter dated May 30, 2013, Kimberly Prisco-Baggett, chief of USACE’s Eastern Virginia regulatory section, wrote the following to VDOT’s environmental project manager:
We are concerned that the project has moved ahead with CBA 1 (VDOT’s preferred route alignment) as the alternative, and that although seven years have passed since we indicated that CBA 2 appears to be the [Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative], neither FHWA (the Federal Highway Administration) nor VDOT has requested to meet with us to discuss this apparent conflict. It is not helpful to the public, or any potential private-public partners, not to address this critical matter before incurring additional expense and delays associated with pursuing a project that may not be permittable.
In an email chain between June 7 and July 13, 2o12, Morteza Farajian, program manager with OTP3 (the public-private partnership office) warned senior VDOT officials that the three construction consortia bidding for the project were getting nervous about the unresolved permitting issue:
I have received serious concerns from our Offerors in regard to the Comments from the Corps of Engineers on the Route 460 reevaluation. They would like to know where we stand today and how we will resolve the issue with the Corps of Engineers and FHWA. They emphasized that this is a huge risk to the procurement and they might stop working on this procurement if the issue between VDOT and COE is not resolved.