Towards the end of his term, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his transportation chief, Sean Connaughton, bulldozed through a dubious project that would build a superhighway from Suffolk to Petersburg along the path of old U.S. 460 in southeastern Virginia.
Few understood the urgency of such a project, which involved a public private partnership that Virginia so loves. Mayors in Tidewater cities questioned it. Some scratched their heads as to why it was rolling forward without environmental permits.
Well, now it has come to a screeching halt. Some $300 million has been spent on the 55-mile-long road that will cost a total of $1.4 billion. Not on shovel of earth has been turned. The new administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe has pulled the plug on it for now.
US 460 Mobility, the PPP3 type firm pushed by McDonnell to proceed with the fast-track plan, did not return phone calls to the Richmond Times-Dispatch after Transportation Secretary Aubrey L. Layne Jr. announced the temporary halt.
At issue are permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other issues. Normally, such matters are dealt with before the state commits to a road. This apparently fell by the wayside because of the public-private partnership deal, Layne said.
How odd is that? Why did the McDonnell administration zoom forward with such a deal?
He certainly laid the public relations groundwork for it. I wrote a story about a year ago in Style Weekly noting that Chmura Economics & Analytics, a Richmond forecasting firm hired by the state, “predicted a massive boost in jobs and investment: $7.3 billion in economic impact through 2020. Besides 4,295 temporary construction jobs, the project would support 14,120 other new jobs. These include 4,730 jobs in Hampton Roads linked to greater port activity and 689 jobs at the 40 service business — at least four for each of the highway’s nine interchanges — that would accompany the new thoroughfare.
“The bulk of the remaining jobs — 8,415, more than half of the predicted number — could come from advanced manufacturing or automotive factories that might locate at industrial “megasites” in Isle of Wight and Sussex counties.”
But when I looked at where and how these jobs might be created, the numbers started to slide. It was all very murky and much in the future.
Connaughton tried to sell the project by saying the new superhighway was needed to handle extra truck traffic hauling ocean-going containers that would swamp the Port of Hampton Roads as the Panama Canal was expanded. He also said that Tidewater needed a second evacuation route if a monster hurricane loomed.
Del. S. Chris Jones, a Suffolk Republican, says he’s very concerned about how this all happened. He says he wants to “figure out how this could happen, who was responsible for the contract and what we do going forward.” The next forum comes April 23 when Layne and VDOT Chief Charles Kilpatrick brief the House Appropriations Committee which is headed by Jones.
The big takeaway here is how the state and its business elites rush forward with Public Private Partnership road projects as a way to fast track and sidestep financial and impact problems. There’s been a tremendous amount of cheerleading about PPP on this blog. It is time to settle down, take a deep breath and reconsider.
In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.