Inching Closer to Accountability on the U.S. 460 Fiasco

Aubrey Layne speaking to reporters yesterday. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
Aubrey Layne speaking to reporters yesterday. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

In the year that he’s served as Secretary of Transportation, Aubrey J.  Layne Jr. has been reluctant to blame any individual or group of individuals for the U.S. 460 toll road fiasco. But he abandoned that reticence yesterday during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee.

“All of the information was funneled through the secretary’s office, and they were clearly in charge,” Layne said, referring to the office of his predecessor Sean Connaughton. The McDonnell administration allowed “political and media” considerations to dominate its decision making when fast-tracking construction of the Interstate highway-quality connector between Petersburg and Suffolk, the Richmond Times-Dispatch quotes Layne as saying.

Layne was himself an avid supporter of the public-private partnership project, which then-Governor Bob McDonnell touted as economic development boon for Virginia ports and industrial development in Southeastern Virginia. But when when Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed him as transportation secretary last year, Layne discovered that the state had spent $300 million on the project without obtaining wetlands permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and had little prospect of ever getting them. He promptly pulled the plug on the project.

A “Special Review of the U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements Project” ordered by Layne laid out in detail how the McDonnell administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) had ample warning of the USACE’s wetlands concerns but pushed them aside to get construction started on the project before McDonnell’s term ended.

But the Special Review studiously ignored the question of who drove the decision-making process and who made the decision to omit critical information in the formal presentation to the CTB when seeking the board’s approval for project financing.  As I observed last April in “Feet-to-the-Fire Time for Layne, Kilpatrick,” there were three key individuals who could plausibly be held responsible — Transportation Secretary Connaughton, then-Virginia Highway Commissioner Greg Whirley, and then-Deputy Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick, who actually delivered the presentation. Whirley retired and Connaughton moved on to become president of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, but Kilpatrick was elevated to Virginia Highway Commissioner.

The issue died in the media but members of the General Assembly apparently were in a mood for answers yesterday. Layne pointed to the “secretary’s office” without mentioning Connaughton by name. By omitting any mention of Kilpatrick, the implication is that he holds the highway commissioner blameless. (Connaughton did not respond to media queries.)

I harp on this matter while others ignore it not to flog Connaughton, whose current job has no bearing directly or indirectly on transportation policy, but to clear Kilpatrick. Back when I was actively covering transportation issues, I had the sense that Kilpatrick was widely liked and respected. But as the chief operations guy at VDOT at the time, he was neck deep in the U.S. 460 imbroglio. He was the one who delivered the misleading presentation to the CTB.

Now that Kilpatrick is Numero Uno, the public has the right to know: Did he have a hand in crafting U.S. 460 policy? Was he just carrying out orders? Did he privately express any reservations to Connaughton about fast-tracking the project? My hunch is that Kilpatrick was acting as the loyal trooper following direct orders when he omitted mention of the permitting issue in his CTB presentation. If I were a wagering man, I’d  bet that he did express private concerns to his higher-ups. But don’t know either of those things for a fact. If I were a state legislator, I would want to know for a fact. The full truth needs to come out, if only to clear the cloud over Kilpatrick’s head.

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18 responses to “Inching Closer to Accountability on the U.S. 460 Fiasco”

  1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    I told you over and over and over again Sean Connaughton was a terrible DOT secretary. His tenure at VDOT was one of the worst, he stripped funds from Fairfax to spend on rural projects. Coalfields expressway, 460, US29 bypass, bicounty debacle, etc

    All of these were projects that no one really needed but the freight industry. They were sold as congestion solvers but anyone who knows anything about transportation and can read the studies would see that the traffic volumes (sometimes as low as 7000 per day)

    7000 drivers per day can be handled most of the time on a 2 lane road people.

    This was, and always has been about giving free money to freight companies without charging them for it, subsidizing their business on the backs of taxpayers… brought to you by the same people who tout free market solutions and small government.

    I want to know, WHY this administration was so adamant about getting these roads built for freight so as to lie at public meetings, hire expensive PR firms to defend projects, etc? Was there any money involved? Contributions? I think the loss of 300 million dollars is no small matter in a current state of real transportation needs.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Tyson’s Engineer –

      That was my sense of his tenure too. I think your questions need answers.

  2. while I’m of the same mind as JimB, I think it’s probably water under the bridge but I’d also point out this is not really a PPTA problem as there have been other VDOT projects through normal funding channels that also have invested a lot of state funds towards a project they did not have permits for and were warned that getting them would be problematical.

    they went forward anyhow and the permits never were obtained because, as with this project, the Corp was asking for the Least Environmentally Damaging option and VDOT refused to provide it

    This got all the way to the CTB where the CTB itself was convinced to select a corridor – that there were no permits for.

    so my point is – I would not be surprised if this fiasco originated inside of VDOT where there are some folks who do not believe that the Army Corp should have the ability to dictate which corridor over VDOT’s preferences.

    So one scenario might well have been that VDOT staff “pitched” the project to higher ups and convinced them that the permits would be “in hand” and got the higher ups to commit publicly and to the Governor to move it forward – probably with some push from the Gov also and once the higher-ups got on board – they could not back out – for the reason of the permits – without some folks wanting to know who and heads rolling.

    but as I said – this has happened before just not in a PPTA version and heads did not roll then either.

    VDOT’s job is not easy when it comes to new location roads. there are a gazillion ways for a project to die and the agency has a mission to succeed at it’s plans.. and those inside VDOT that fail – also can be held accountable.

    I suspect there were more than one person involved with varying degrees of responsibility such that there is no one head sticking up ready to be whacked.

    Lane has actually gone far further than what happens typically where it’s considered bad form to blame your predecessors…

    I think it’s time to move on.. it appears that Lane is a straight-arrow trying to move the ball down the field.. and I’d rather see him do that – than get mired in something that is not going to be fruitful nor productive unless it convinces VDOT to change the way it deals with COE permits – institutionally.

    1. I don’t think it’s water under the bridge. This is one of the biggest state government management screw-ups in recent history. I think it’s important to get a full accounting of what happened, especially when one of the key principals involved now serves as Virginia Highway Commissioner. I’m not saying that Kilpatrick did anything wrong — he strikes me as a good guy — but I don’t know for a fact that he didn’t. It’s important to clear the air.

      1. Do you know where Kilpatrick came from before he came to Richmond?

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Yes it is monumental. And it’s a matter of PPP3 gone wild.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I would not be surprised if this is simply the Tip of the Iceberg.

    The more I looked into how mass transportation planning objectives were formulated within the political process, and how tactics were designed to implement those “ad hoc” decisions, made by a few (both in N. Va. and statewide), the more I suspected rampant crony capitalism and political corruption to be driving those projects that looked to be designed to make a few rich off other peoples money, while acerbating, not solving, problems.

    My focus a few years back was mostly on No. VA. projects starting after the 2000, including public private ventures. Of course Fed. authorities found such corruption, and I suspect it was only the tip of the same iceberg.

    1. see what you’ve done Bacon.. ??

      now we’re going to get into yet more conspiracy theories.. jesus.

    2. I’ve seen no hint of corruption in the U.S. 460 case. I think the problem was politics. This was Bob McDonnell’s top transportation priority, and Sean Connaughton pushed it through heedless of the consequences. There weren’t any payoffs. Connaughton didn’t get a cushy job with a big construction-engineering firm — he jumped over to the health care industry. Rather, McDonnell and Connaughton were convinced the 460 connector would be an economic bonanza for Virginia when the Panama Canal expansion is complete and the Norfolk ports enjoy a large, though brief, competitive advantage thanks to its deep channels. Their economic vision, though fraught with uncertainty, was not without merit. My big problem with the project is that the final proposal was never carefully vetted by the community or by informed outsiders. It was just pushed through — and look what happened! Oops, we forgot about those pesky wetlands!

      1. the tendency towards conspiracy theory is rampant these days in transportation.

        The folks in NoVa believe VDOT is sending money to Hampton or rural VA

        The folks in Hampton are quite convinced that they’d not have to pay tolls for their tunnels if they got the money that was their that was sent to NoVa instead.

        I’ve had folks in the MPO in Fredericksburg tell me that Nova got all of Fredericksburg’s money and they were told that by a GA delegate.

        I think this tends to be the “crony” that many talk about – as opposed to as you illustrated.. someone approving a HOT lane project then going to work for Transurban.. etc.

        The problem with conspiracy theories is that they then become the explanation de jure for anything going on in govt that people don’t like.

        it’s part and parcel of the loss of confidence in government in general .

        The 460 was a CF.. I’m willing to bet – with potentially some influence from the Gov to “get er done”… but as I’ve said before – there are folks inside of
        VDOT who would eat dog poo before they compromised with the COE an ANYTHING.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I cannot form an opinion on the case in your article since I do not know the facts. But I strongly disagree on your general statement that ‘corruption’ must involve breaking the law, such as the payoffs, or bribes.

        Whether legal or not, I deem wasting other people’s money (instead of your own) by “pushing (projects) through heedless of the consequences,” a form of corruption unworthy of a public official. But unfortunately its the rule rather than the exception in today’s political culture, a plague on our society, trading and wasting other peoples money, for one’s own political advantage irrespective of the mess it leaves behind for others to clean up, pay for, or go broke over.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Re the last sentence of my above statement: “My focus a few years back was mostly on No. VA. projects starting after the 2000, including public private ventures. Of course Fed. authorities found such corruption, and I suspect it was only the tip of the same iceberg.”

          Here I referred to FTA’s Inspector General’s report on the wastage of public moneys by Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in building the Silver Line and related governance and management issues.

          1. I’m bemused and .. a little .. not sure what the right word is but
            let me explain.

            It’s as if – we expect almost flawless performance from government or close to it as if it is the expected condition – as if we expect govt to be comparable to the private sector.

            and that’s just not reality; not even for the private sector.

            there are screw-ups left and right – as well as some real successes.

            I look at all the things VDOT has done – well – as well as the things they have not – and I try hard to be a half-glass full guy.

            but you have a bee in your bonnet about 460 and next thing you know, Reed is accusing the transit folks in DC of bad stuff.. and I’m sure if we wait around DonR and TMT will weigh in on their respective government “outrages”.

            I have my own list of things I don’t like either but I cannot condemn the entire agency .. .. the reality is that Govt screws up also because Govt is just people.. doing their jobs.. and some of them are flawed.

            I just don’t see the point of the witch -hunts… I guess.

          2. Fair enough. By that definition, you’re including actions that go beyond the routine government waste and abuse. In that case, I would agree.

          3. Oh I have the same concerns you do about 460 – and I’d hope that Lane and the GA would zip up that PPTA hole and keep it from being repeated.

            But I see the loophole as the problem – that somebody was likely to exploit and it was probably a “team” effort – as most folks who do stuff like that prefer to spread the risk and not be identified as the sole miscreant.

            The thing that bothers me is that no one in the McDonnell admin including Connaughton, owned the issue and took action on closing the loop hole and so .. we are lucky that a guy like Lane came along – it could have easily been yet another risk-averse person to preside over an agency – don’t roil the waters, type guy/gal.

            which is actually the norm.

            we’d not know anything at all at this point if it were not for someone like Lane.

            we should appreciate him and I fear that he’ll not be so easily co-opted by members of the GA – and probably will pay for it – and we’ll lose yet another conscientious fellow.

            And we’re about to find out because Bill Howell had an I-95 interchange cut from his district and the local GOP are claiming it’s pay back for the MedicAid decision and urging him to get involved.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    You’re right Jim.

    I am referring to “actions that go beyond routine government waste and abuse.” And I saw what I considered an abundance of that as well as alleged strong arm tactics to enforce such ill considered projects during the McDonnell administration all of which I described at length on this website.

    1. well – you guys will probably like this proposal:

      Transportation; funding, formula, update annual reporting, and allocations. (HB1887)

      Transportation funding; formula, reporting, and allocations. Removes the Executive Director of the Virginia Port Authority from the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) and makes the members of the CTB subject to removal by the Governor for malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence, misconduct, neglect of duty, absenteeism, conflicts of interest, failure to carry out the policies of the Commonwealth, or refusal to carry out a lawful directive of the Governor.

  6. here’s a letter to the Editor from Lane on an interchange in Stafford in Bill Howell’s district:


    “When I assumed the position of transportation secretary, it became clear to me that one of the biggest issues in transportation was the lack of transparency and the back-room deals. Many projects that were accelerated in the Six-Year Improvement Program had not been discussed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. These projects had been advanced based on local politics rather than merit.

    A prime example of this is the State Route 630 interchange project in Stafford County. The project is likely worthwhile, but it advanced with minimal state policy oversight and discussion. Little consideration was given to other projects that are just as important and could have met greater transportation needs.

    Funding allocations more than quadrupled from $40 million to $187 million between FY 2013 and FY 2014 on the Route 630 project. This increase in funding would have been sufficient to build the new I–95 collector lane bridges across the Rappahannock River, a project that would have eased the current bottleneck on I–95 between U.S. 17 and State Route 3. However, there was never a full discussion or evaluation of the two projects at the CTB level.”

    Pretty tough stuff given the role of the local MPO in advancing that interchange over C/D lanes on I-95.

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