by James A. Bacon
Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne gave yesterday a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the suspension of work on the U.S. 460 Connector after the expenditure of nearly $300 million. “From a taxpayer standpoint, there is no good explanation for why we are here today,” he told the Commonwealth Transportation Board at its May meeting.
I did not attend the meeting, so I provide no first-hand reporting, as I usually have on this issue. I rely here upon the reporting of Cathy Grimes with the Daily News and a PowerPoint presentation bearing the name of Layne and Virginia Highway Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick that is posted on the CTB website.
Without naming specific names, Layne placed blame yesterday on “the executive branch” of the McDonnell administration for pushing the project forward despite warnings from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the proposed route for the 55-mile, Interstate-quality highway would impact roughly 500 acres of wetlands.
“The initial decision was driven by the executive branch. … There were extraordinary efforts made to get this contract closed,” Layne said. “This road was being driven hard, and the administration wanted it as soon as possible, so that was a key negotiating tactic, to front-load the contract. … Everything was geared up to get the project done as quickly as possible. … That push to get that road, that’s where we find ourselves with this amount of money out of pocket.”
While Layne’s account provides more detail than was available before, it leaves key questions unanswered, particularly, which individuals were responsible for the chain of events that put taxpayers at risk for losing $300 million. Here are key elements of the timeline:
- December 2012: The state executes a comprehensive agreement and design-build contract with 460 Mobility Partners for the project, to be financed with $904 million in highway funding, $250 million from the Virginia Port Authority, and $240 million in tax-free bonds.
- Spring-summer 2013: Design work commences; a wetlands survey is undertaken; the McDonnell administration pushes to advance “work packages” in the contract.
- September 2013: VDOT submits a preliminary permit application to the Army Corps regarding impact on 486 acres of wetlands. The Army Corps indicates that additional environmental reviews are needed.
- Fall 2013: The administration presses VDOT to buy right-of-way and “move dirt” in areas not subject to Army Corps approval.
- Fall 2013: The administration and VDOT bring in an environmental consultant.
- December 2013: VDOT, the Army Corps and the Federal Highway Administration negotiate a scope of Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)
- December 2013: SEIS effort reviews alternative routes; while process is underway, federal funds cannot be used for construction in the corridor.
- January 2014: The newly installed McAuliffe administration directs VDOT to limit work order under contract to work related to the Army Corps permit.
- February-March 2014: Field work reveals that mitigation efforts on previously selected corridor will yield only minimal reductions to wetland impact.
- March 2014: The McAuliffe administration stops work on the project.
Bacon’s bottom line: Layne has studiously avoided naming names when attributing blame for the extraordinary measures taken by the McDonnell administration to push through the 460 project. He was, after all, deeply involved in the project himself, both as a Hampton Roads representative to the CTB advocating the project and as head of the U.S. 460 Funding Corporation set up to sell the bonds. There is no indication that he was involved in making the decisions that put $300 million of state funds at risk. My sense is that he’s a decent, honest guy who wasn’t privy to the decisions that were made and that he is as dismayed as anyone by what he discovered when he became transportation secretary. But I’m also guessing that he is walking a tightrope — he does not want to implicate his former friends and allies if he can avoid doing so.
However, it is important to know not only what decisions were made but who made them. To what degree was former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton responsible for pushing the project forward despite ample warnings from the Army Corps that it had issues with the proposed route? Did Connaughton bring former Governor McDonnell into the loop — was the then-governor aware of the risks? Conversely, did the governor pressure Connaughton to finish the job quickly? In other words, was Connaughton following orders? Did senior VDOT staff raise objections to the ramrod approach to getting the road built, or were they on board? Specifically, what was the role of Kilpatrick, who served as deputy VDOT commissioner during the last days of the McDonnell administration and now is Numero Uno at VDOT?
To my mind, U.S. 460 is the biggest scandal of the McDonnell administration, not GiftGate, because it entailed unnecessarily putting at risk $300 million in public dollars. The public has a right to know whom to hold responsible. The scandal should be a political career-ender for some one — we just don’t know whom.There are currently no comments highlighted.