U.S. 460: Now We Know What Happened, We Just Don’t Know Who Was Responsible

We know how the 460 project ran off the road. We don't know who was driving.

We know how the 460 project ran off the road. We don’t know who was driving.

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.

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43 responses to “U.S. 460: Now We Know What Happened, We Just Don’t Know Who Was Responsible

  1. There is another side to this story by those who live in the area and are known to be well-informed worth researching before assuming guilt on anyone: the role of the wealthy landowners and the elections of the local city government. I have no idea which is true, but it’s worth researching.

  2. Jesus H. Keeerist – EVERYTHING is a CONSPIRACY now days and de-facto witch-hunts are the solution de-jure…

    I heard no such “burn-them-at-the-stake” cries from the torch and pitchfork crowd when the Western Transportation Corridor went down or the Pocahontas Parkway went belly up. No one cried for scalps when the plan to toll I-81 or I-95 went south… and no one as been drawn & quartered over the Cville Bypass.

    I think people forget that VDOT is an organization of several thousand – perhaps as many as 9 or 10 thousand and within it’s bowels it has ALWAYS been a road-building machine with a never-small stack of new “ideas” to build.

    the only thing that changes is the administrations who have different views on what “ideas” to pursue – or not.

    VDOT has a long history of throwing the virtual finger at COE.. but the death knell is often the innocuous sound word Supplemental.

    That’s basically FHWA saying “wait a minute this sounds like a problem”.
    I don’t know that FHWA likes the COE ay better than VDOT but the tend to be more respectful and KNOW that COE administers some pretty powerful regulations that FHWA, in the past, has often ended up in court in a SUMO wrestling match with another Federal Agency – something has looks bad and smells bad to the judges trying to understand why the two agencies can’t sort things out without both of them costing the taxpayers double legal fees.

    VDOT has never had such qualms .. but FHWA is more circumspect and often issues the “supplemental” as a way of saying ” we ain’t going to Federal court with the COE over this.

    so here’s my suggestion – see who the VDOT folks are who were also involved with the Cville bypass or Pocahontas and see if there is a “pattern” in terms of personnel.

  3. There are any number of theories about where this went wrong. (As Layne points out, though, they all take place in the executive branch. And yes, he was a big proponent of this project.) They include that the governor was making political payback to Southside supporters and that he had made promises to Wal-Mart and Rolls Royce regarding port access. What I do know from first-hand hearing is that the governor and the secretary were extremely proud of this PPP and were traveling all over the country promoting it and the equally crazy Elizabeth River Crossing deal as they vanguard of PPPs. The secretary sent one of his deputies down to Hampton Roads to speak to a regional civic group of which I was part and it was only our courtesy that kept him from being laughed all the way back to Richmond. Sensing that he didn’t know enough about the traffic patterns in this region to know what he was talking about, the deputy even stepped away from the microphone when he was asked about it so that the media would have no audible record of his responses to questions.

  4. I just don’t think things “went wrong”. VDOT has, no doubt, done internal preliminary feasibility studies for many conceivable options that they know may not meet high standards for cost-effectiveness but in the road-building business – it’s all about political support – not cost effectiveness and in Virginia, not environmental “obstacles”.

    they keep these projects on the shelf – rather to go back into the oven to be baked when political support reaches necessary thresholds.

    Don’t like the Western Transportation Corridor ? fine .. we’ll rename it Battlefield Parkway and rearrange the lines on the map to better align with the politics.

    I do not think the process is rocket science nor do I think there is any incompetence or corruption in play. It’s the way that VDOT does roads.

    the idea that a road had to be “cost effective” is a relatively new and novel concept .. and I still think we don’t have real metrics that would, for instance, show us dollar advantages for say Walmart ( who probably would be loath to provide much of that data anyhow).

    road building has to be one of the most politically-driven endeavors known to man and there are no shortage of DOT folks aiming to please…

  5. one more.

    we talk these days about whether a road can be justified economically..

    VDOT would ask and I would agree – what would have happened to the national interstate highway system if we have used that criteria ?

    how many of the long rural segments could have ever been justified prior to building them – and now look .

    so from this – some might ask how far downstream can you look for a road to “eventually” turn out to be an economic benefit?

    there are no “bridges to nowhere” – if you have a long enough time-span.

    and Interstates were like railroads – towns that didnot exist – sprang up after the rail and the interstates were built.

    Why did U.S. 460 have to be a PPTA project to start with – any more or less than the Cville Bypass or Western Transportation or Tri-county parkway had to be?

    there are a whole bunch of questions here – honest questions of which the answers are not clean and easy… in terms of justification – and shorter-term economic feasibility.

    The whole game has changed with the collapse of the gas tax as a driver of funding for new projects – and the advent of all electronic tolling – and toll roads that are not self-supporting and need state subsidies.

    is the existence and value of a subsidized toll road better or worse that a no-toll , fully-paid-for-on-the-tax–dime road ?

    for that matter – in a PPTA world where self-supporting or subsidized toll roads can exist – what exactly determines if you do that – or just build a traditional nonPPTA “free” road? what process would you go through to make such a choice?

  6. larryg wrote (emphasis added):

    road building has to be one of the most politically-driven endeavors known to man and there are no shortage of DOT folks aiming to please…

    Ever heard of any politically-driven rail transit projects?

    Just askin’.

    • re: ” Ever heard of any politically-driven rail transit projects?”

      truthfully? not much in the hinterlands… roads are king and transit is reviled as a money pit…

      in your more “enlightened” urban areas perhaps?

  7. James A. Bacon wrote:

    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.

    If no road results, and all the Commonwealth is left with is a pile of unapproved plans and partially-completed EIS documents, then you are likely right. Certainly the amounts of money are a lot higher. That is a scandal.

    But – it is not illegal to plan for a road, even if the road is considered a waste of resources by many. Even if the road is environmentally damaging. Even if no road results.

    But what the federal prosecutors allege that former Gov. McDonnell and Mrs. McDonnell did is something the prosecutors feel is illegal. Will the Justice Department prevail in court? I cannot answer that.

    • re: ” If no road results, and all the Commonwealth is left with is a pile of unapproved plans and partially-completed EIS documents, then you are likely right. Certainly the amounts of money are a lot higher. That is a scandal.”

      how many times has that already happened?

      “But – it is not illegal to plan for a road, even if the road is considered a waste of resources by many. Even if the road is environmentally damaging. Even if no road results.”

      totally agree.. and that’s why I’m bemused by the ” we gotta find out who did this and punish them” mindset.

      “But what the federal prosecutors allege that former Gov. McDonnell and Mrs. McDonnell did is something they feel is illegal. Will the Justice Department prevail in court? I cannot answer that.”

      the fact that a bunch of previous Va AG’s of both parties had concerns – has affected me.

      the last thing in the world I want to see – is witch-hunts – no matter the party.

      I think McDonnell is guilty of having a wife with really poor judgement who went off the ranch….and when McDonnell would not take the plea deal a pissing contest ensued… and continues.

      I do not think the Feds have anything at all resembling a smoking gun here just some dumb stuff… that went on.

      but it sure screwed McDonnells political career.. for the time being… he’s going to be damaged goods in any election for Senate…at least in the near term.

  8. I guess I can’t just chalk up the spending of 300M without a shovel hitting the ground to “the cost of doing business” or “road planning is expensive”.

    So what if no one is going to get indicted? Does that mean we ought to just bury our heads in the sand and not get to the bottom of what happened?

    There are craters for potholes on I-84 down in Southside that are going to kill somebody.

    • I guess all I’m saying is that this is not that untypical. After all they did Pocahontas Parkway and that ended badly also.

      We don’t know what happened inside of VDOT.. but that’s probably where there would be consequences.. we don’t normally have public executions.

      We don’t indict people for performing badly… usually

      potholes come out of a different pot of money – …

      😉

      I’m not excusing it.. just saying we have screwups… public and private… it “happens”.

    • JohnS hits the nail on the head. $300M is an absurd amount of money to have been spent before the final route of the road was even decided.

      All the other points, counter-points and general spew are irrelevant chirping.

      The question of scandal can only be determined through an investigation of this travesty.

      There should be an immediate, detailed and publicly transparent investigation of how $300M was spent, who approved the disbursements, what contractual provisions required that level of disbursement, who got paid the money and what they produced in return for the money.

      I don’t just smell a rat. I smell the overwhelming, stifling, gag inducing smog of a Richmond crony capitalist rat.

      But, of course, no accounting will be taken. This is Virginia and we practice “the Virginia Way”. The Virginia Way allows Virginia politicians to lie, cheat and steal to their heart’s content with no oversight or explanation for the public from whom they steal.

      The Virginia state government is not just the worst political body in America. With the exception of Cuba and Venezuela, it is the worst political body in the Western Hemisphere. And I’m beginning to wonder about Cuba’s relative position vis-a-vis our state government.

      Throw. The. Bums. Out.

      • 300 million IS a LOT of money for “study”, I agree….

        but I gave and example where a 5 mile project went from 13 million to 18 million and folks know how the Cville Bypass was low-balled by not including things that would have to be included.

        this method of operation by VDOT is not new. the dollar amount is larger than normal but they’ll easily defend the expenditure by saying they had to spend money studying ways to avoid or mitigate wetlands.

        we just got finished talking about street cars in Arlington, million dollar bus stops in Arlington, cost overruns for METRO, etc.

        how much money was spent studying putting tolls on I-81 then cancelling the project?

        I’m not exactly sure what people want ..well I am.. but developing anti-govt attitudes and demanding indictments is silly. It’s not the most competent work it could be – granted – but “illegal”… geeze…

        • $300M of studying?

          Let’s do some math. Let’s say the average cost for this advice is $200 / hour per person. That’s $1,600 per day per person and $368,000 per year per person. Note: This assumes a 230 day work year.

          $300,000,000 / $368,000 = 815 person – years!

          Over 400 people worked full time for two years to study the Rt 460 wetlands problem?

          C’mon Larry.

          This sounds more like a crony capitalist’s dream contract where a massive amount of cash was front-loaded. Apparently, the contract also had no provision for repayment of the front-loaded cash in case of cancellation.

          #300M is a third of a billion dollars. For studies of wetlands?

  9. here’s an example:

    ” How could state highway engineers have underestimated the cost of Culpeper’s Western Outer Loop, a project that has been in the works for 10 years, by $8 million?

    That is the question county officials and taxpayers are asking after it became public last week that what the Virginia Department of Transportation said would be a $14.8 million project at the beginning of 2013 now suddenly has a $23 million price tag.

    “I was floored and extremely disappointed when I found out,” said Culpeper County Administrator Frank Bossio. “The last figure we heard was $14.8 million, give or take a little.”

    That “little,” first reported to be $3 million, is in effect $8 million, and county officials are not only concerned about the astronomical increase but also angered by the way the VDOT handled the situation.

    “Knowing in December that the project was going to be $8 million over estimates, why did VDOT continue to spend money buying right-of-way for an under-funded road without notifying the county?” asked Supervisor Sue Hansohn, in whose district the much-needed road would be located.”

    this is not an isolated example. Someone, more than one person – made a mistake – but in my years of observing local projects – this is not uncommon.

    there are unknowns and there are things you don’t know with certainty.

    we did a road widening in Spotsy last couple of years and there were no maps of the buried utilities and they were much more in the build area than previously thought. lines were cut, there were delays, extra costs, etc.

    we do have some issues, in my view, with wetlands.

    wetlands, for instance, are also said to be a problem with an Eastern Bypass around Washington DC which would divert East Coast traffic away from the DC area but Maryland has an attitude more like COE than VDOT does and so the by;ass (via the Nice Bridge) has never happened just as the western route around DC has never happened (for a different reason).

    and to be honest – when I-64 was built from Richmond to Hampton – the wetland regs were different and much less stringent.

    there may be a honest question that if I-64 was being proposed today, would the COE approve it?

  10. There’s plenty that seems “scandalous” about the money and gifts that appear to routinely flow through the Richmond governmental machinery, but I haven’t seen anything yet that makes me think that the 15 year+ history of the planning and development of the U.S. 460 corridor is among them or has the slightest hint of scandal, despite a lot of opportunistic forward leaning on that axis by journalists, commentators and pols. It looks to me more like a lamentable, vexatious, but standard government-bureaucracy/state-federal entropy for any large highway or other significant infrastructure program. In this case it’s seasoned with a “knives-out” opportunism from sectors that have marked policy, environmental, and personal disagreements with the McDonnell Administration and its implementation of an aggressive highway building and transportation infrastructure improvement policy. My impression is that what’s driving the story now is that the McAuliffe administration, in response to pressure from major donors, wants to kill the 460 project, and is looking (apparently with some initial success) for a distracting cover explanation for that decision. If they just pulled the plug without the diversion, people might correctly conclude that the new kids in town are the ones flushing the initial investment down the drain, which I believe they are either by design or by incompetence.

    If I were writing Jim’s headline on this post, I’d probably reverse it and qualify it a bit (which makes for less exciting reading). My take would be – “We aren’t sure what happened or how it’s going to turn out, but we pretty much know who is responsible”. In that latter category, my nominations would be the current Governor, his very generous environmental advocate campaign contributors (e.g., close to $2million from just two contributors, both of whom signed the Dec. 18 letter to the Gov-elect urging him to halt the project, and another $1.6mil from the closely allied NextGen Climate Action organization).

    Allow me to bore everyone with context. This project has a long history. JB’s truncated timeline restatement (or even the underlying, linked recent VDOT version) doesn’t begin to do it justice.

    The General Assembly designated 460 as a priority corridor in 2000. Discussions of Route 460 issues go back into the 1990s. In 2003 the GA mandated that VDOT initiate a procurement under the 1995 PPTA to improve the corridor. In 2005, the Feds approved the Draft EIS for the 460 Location Study. Also in 2005, the CTB selected the alignment south of the current road from among five options in the DEIS. That route was altered by CTB in 2007 to minimize impacts on existing residences. The Federal Highway Administration conducted an independent review and issued a final EIS in mid-2008. The Army Corps participated in that federal review process. In the fall of 2008, the Feds issued their Record of Decision. EPA commented in that process, but the Corps of Engineers did not. VDOT, pursuant to legislative mandate, initiated a PPTA procurement in late 2008. They got three proposals, none of which, apparently, were deemed practicable, and the procurement was suspended.

    Up to this point, we aren’t even out of Democratic Administration territory. Candidate McDonnell supported 460 improvements in the GA and on the campaign trail in the 2009 campaign. No surprise, given his geography. There could have been no doubt in the electorate that US460 upgrades were a central position of the McDonnell campaign. That he pushed hard for progress as Governor is utterly predictable, utterly and explicitly foreshadowed and disclosed. Once in office, the McD Admin formally terminated the prior procurement process, and issued a new solicitation in May 2010. In 2011, the Governor and General Assembly established the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, accelerated previously authorized CPR bonds, and gave VDOT authority to issue more than $1 billion in federally backed GARVEE bonds. There was no question that US 460 improvements were to be among the beneficiaries of these new programs. Also in 2011, the Virginia Port Authority pledged to provide $250million for 460 improvements. Detailed proposals from contractors were solicited in mid -2011. After reviews of those proposals, VDOT opted for a Design/Build/Finance model. In other words, the Commonwealth, rather than just granting what would essentially be a concession to private bidders, determined to retain responsibility for operations and maintenance once the new road was built. There were several reasons for this decision, all of which strike me as eminently rational, but of which the most important in my mind is the calculation that this model would minimize debt costs and protect the Commonwealth’s credit rating.

    It was not until mid 2012, after all this other activity had taken place, including a tremendous investment of time and resources in navigating the federal elements of the process, that the Corps surfaced divergent ideas about the siting of the new 460. This was despite the fact that the Final EIS and Record of Decision, in which the Corps had participated 4 years previously, had found that the 2006-2007 siting selections of VDOT/CTB provided significant opportunities to mitigate wetlands and residential impacts (“the selected alternative includes all practicable measures to minimize environmental harm”). VDOT pushed back responded by saying that the Corps’ preference for following the current 460 routing with by-passes ignored “critical information and will result in this important project not moving forward.” The Corps replied that the VDOT/CTB route addressed in the Final EIS was not the “least damaging” environmental alternative. Keep in mind, folks that the difference in wetlands impact between the two siting alternatives, as estimated at that time, was about 19 acres.

    The Federal Highway Authority then (2nd half 2012) undertook a re- evaluation of the EIS and the Record of Decision to test the continuing validity of the first EIS. The Feds concluded that no Supplemental EIS was necessary and did not adopt the Corps’ siting preference.

    On motion of Aubrey Lane (our current Secretary of Transportation, but then a member of CTB), the Route 460 Funding Corp. was established mid-2012. Lane became the Corporation’s Executive Director. At year’s end, the Federal Highway Administration approve the initial financing arrangements.

    In 2013, VDOT, the project contractor, and the Corps conducted field work and design studies on both the Commonwealth’s route and the Corps’ preferred route. Those studies led VDOT to posit that the wetlands impacts for both routes were greater than the FEIS and Record of Decision had indicated. The previous figures had been 129 acres for the VDOT route, 110 acres for the Corps’ preferred route. The field studies showed that those values should have been 474 and 594 acres, respectively. The Corps’ preferred route was also determined to have additional costs of $1.5billion over the VDOT siting, and impacts on 184 businesses and homes, versus 46 for the VDOT route. These new data led to an MOU between the Federal Highway Administration, the Corps and the Commonwealth to conduct a Supplemental EIS (SEIS) to bring the FEIS and ROD up to date with later-developed data. The initial estimate for completion of a draft SEIS was Spring 2014. This is normally followed by public meetings, comment, and a separate Corps’ comment period. Meanwhile, in December 2013, following the statewide election, 9 environmental advocacy groups, at least two of which (according to VPAP) donated more than $2million to McAufliffe, urged him to cancel the existing VDOT plans in favor of upgrading the existing roadway, putting rail in the corridor, putting light rail in Virginia Beach, etc., etc.

    If anyone is still with me, among the many unsettling things I see in this is something I have seen in other major infrastructure projects around the country – an unfortunate politicization of the Corps permitting process in the Obama Administration. I have no quarrel with a mild application of the brakes by a new administration, especially one with a lot of deep-pocketed friends who hate this project, to await the outcome of the SEIS process. However, I think there is good reason to believe the SEIS will confirm the initial assessment that the Corps’ preferred route will end up having greater wetlands/residential impacts than VDOT’s. In the meantime, the policy of any administration should be to protect the investment that has been made in the project. All official observers to date have signed on to the idea that the wetlands impacts can be dealt with through mitigation. The issue now is checking the sums to be sure that the quantification of those impacts is correct.

    What we are witnessing here is a extraordinarily complex concatenation of federal and state regulatory, planning, finance, and environmental requirements that make every project one that has a large measure of Sisyphusian (apologies to Classics Majors) content. Combine that with the sheer excitement of a good old-fashioned witch-hunt, and any number of us can play this game. The McDonnell Administration was well aware of the inherent inertia in these major project plans and pushed hard to overcome that built-in waste. They no doubt rubbed plenty of folks the wrong way. But without that impetus, nothing gets done, and for all the slime of the Jonnygate mess, I still am of a mind to say that the McDonnell transportation initiatives go on the credit side of his administrations ledger book. That is something about which reasonable folks can differ. As for this manufactured free-for-all, I say that the correct view is let the SEIS run, urge those running around looking for scalps to calm down and learn as much as they can about the project, its rationales (that have been discussed with a fair degree of concord across several administrations), and its cost/benefit characteristics over a 50 year horizon. There will be opportunity to mitigate, re-design, or even cancel (although based on what I know now, I think that would be foolish) and protect initial investment for almost any approach other than an immediate termination of the project, as ardently advocated by the Governor’s generous campaign donors and their allies.

    • Pretty rational narrative by Scout including pointing out the history.

      I would add – that in normal NEPA projects, there are alternatives and normally one called the least environmentally damaging or some such – and a comparison process to include things like acres of wetlands impacted, costs, etc.

      The PPTA process that VDOT is using is done in such a way to not disclose much of this to the pubic with the excuse that since it’s PPTA proprietary information is involved. They are making no effort to strip out data that can be disclosed and instead using PPTA as a reason to not provide things – routinely.

      similar approach for the Cville Bypass.

      and in fact, across the state, government is taking a harder line on FOIA also.

    • Scout, would you mind if I elevated your lengthy comment here to a full-fledged post? You surface a lot of background and new information worth telling. I’m not sure I agree with you but I definitely think that your perspective is worth airing.

    • re: ” My impression is that what’s driving the story now is that the McAuliffe administration, in response to pressure from major donors, wants to kill the 460 project, and is looking (apparently with some initial success) for a distracting cover explanation for that decision.”

      include in this context – other actions taken –

      1. – lowering tolls in Hampton

      2. – getting rid of the EZ Pass fees

      3. killing the Cville bypass

      then also keep in mind that the, just changed, gas tax, is bringing in a lot less money that before… and its having impacts on finances… only 15% of Virginia transportation revenues is coming from the gas tax.

      https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/webdoc/pdf/tracking_mar14.pdf

      and – look at what is going on at the Federal level – where currently the money from the Feds – used primarily to build new roads in Va – is very likely going to be cut because right now about 1/2 of the money – comes from general revenues not gas taxes.

      with that kind of outlook – it might not even matter if US 460 was a “good” project without COE objections… Money is going away.. and cuts are necessary.

      Toll Roads that are not self-supporting and need State money to supplement – are not going to sell well – in part – because there is uncertainty as to just how much the state might have to contribute if the toll road – does worse than projected… who wants a replay of the Pocahontas Parkway?

      but I too would much support getting even more narrative from SCOUT!

  11. the whole idea that we’re going to have a public review of the work of PERSONNEL inside of government agencies is … well.. it’s ludicrous.

    we’re going to have the public micro-manage projects and fire people who screw up?

    there’s a problem now days. There’s not only more virulent anti-govt attitudes especially from the right – but there’s fundamental misunderstands of how government is SUPPOSED to work and in the age of the internet, we now have things like folks demanding that government employees connected to some issue they disagree with – be “indicted”.

    It’s loony. We’re going to indict Lois Lerner or someone in the State Dept or Military that “did not respond” to Benghazi or in Va spent 300 million on a failed road?

    Don’t get me wrong. I decry incompetence that taxpayers are paying for.

    but I also decry – for instance, GM screwing up on the ignition switches…

    but we’re going to “indict” folks because incompetence is what, “illegal”?

    oh.. and if that sounds bad then we”ll throw in the idea that there must have been a conspiracy involved also so then that makes it “illegal” ?

    this is loony.

    we’re one step away from Luddites with pitchforks and torches in the city square ….

    • Larry, when someone screws up big time like this, it is not “micro managing” to find out what happened. I can give you examples of small-time VDOT screw-ups that should be handled internally. But when $300 million is put at risk, we need to find out what happened and who made the decisions. That’s Accountability 101.

      • I agree – with one exception – you don’t go looking for people.

        you look at the process and the money …

        but Jim B – you KNOW this is EXACTLY what Stewart Schwartz and Tripp Pollard at SELC have expressed as the downside of PPTA -where money issues are submerged because they are said to be “proprietary”.

        VDOT dug this hole – .. and I think it’s PPTA as much as anything

        but an investigation is only going to find that money was spent in studying the project and what are you going to do? Accuse them of doing the study more expensively than they should have? that’s what I mean by micro-managing.

        This is nothing illegal going on so you really do not have justification to go after individuals.

        there are, no doubt, teams of people inside of VDOT and probably teams of private entity people and they, no doubt can take you on a timeline of how the money was spent.

        what exactly does that solve? are you going to go after an individual for letting a contract – that you disagree with?

        I’m all for accountability – but this approach being advocated is looking for people to blame.. not process…

        you’re going to end up with people subsequently making CYA decisions .. for fear of being “fingered” as doing something wrong.

        VDOT is a risk-taker when it comes to roads. They push the envelope. They have successes – they got tolls in Hampton and HOT Lanes on I-95 and they have failures – I-81 and I-95 tolls and the Cville Bypass.

        do you really want to start “investigating” VDOT for possible crimes in conducting their mission?

        You need more than money spent badly, IMHO.

        • VDOT dug this hole – .. and I think it’s PPTA as much as anything

          VDOT did not write the PPTA. Credit for that goes to the administration of George Allen and the General Assembly at the time.

  12. Jim – It’s your site and once we lob stuff into your place, its yours to do with as you please. I don’t really mind, but I wrote it more as a comment than a post, and would have taken more pains with it if it were the latter. I think it makes more sense as part of the discussion with our colleagues here. I was trying to get my own head around the sequence of events and spent an evening going over public materials to try to understand the sequencing. It may not be perfect, but I think it’s as accurate as an amateur can make it.

    My over-arching point is that all these big projects have long lifespans, are part of a blindingly stupid, complex and entropy-breeding interaction between local, state, and federal approvals and financing decisions, and that this one seems to have just hit a wall, after a lot of attention and effort over several administrations, a wall that very much coincided with the new Administration coming in, an administration very well fueled in its electoral campaign by opponents of the road. I think it perfectly fair for the new guys to take their own view of all these big projects, but they should own that review and not try to throw the labors of those who preceded them into the sewer. They also should campaign directly on shutting down projects, if that is where they intend to go. McDonnell certainly pulled no punches on campaigning for 460 – McAuliffe should have campaigned against it.

    The design, study, planning, financing, building process is so complex that any hiccup at any point at any governmental level can flush these things down the drain for decades. When the need eventually becomes too acute years down the road, the project costs have multiplied ten or twenty-fold. That’s why an administration that thinks these projects are necessary and beneficial (leaving to one side whether we all agree with all the projects) has to push as hard as the McDonnell group did.

    Of course, this is a ripe subject now for political opportunism since McDonnell is fighting to stay out of the slammer on unrelated issues, Connaughton has gone on to private industry and can’t spend his or his employers’ time getting embroiled in political poo-flinging, and Layne and Kilpatrick, who probably were closest to the details of this in the McDonnell tenure, are now working for McAuliffe.

    • Scout, If you’d prefer to polish your comment, feel free. There’s no rush. If you’re OK with publishing it “as is,” that’s OK, too. Just let me know one way or the other.

      • These threads all have their own life-cycles, Jim. This one seems to have played out, although I’m sure the topic will come up again in the future. I think just leave the comment as a comment.

        I admit I’m still learning my way through this. Much of my interest is because I have seen some really frustrating Army Corps or Corps-related projects outside Virginia get bogged down in the confusion over process. My own view is that the Corps (or at least individuals within the Corps) often over-expand their proper role in permitting. This looks like one of those cases. The process appears to have been followed to the letter all the way through over many years, but the Corps then inserted itself actively at a relatively late stage into the siting discussion, a topic that the Corps really doesn’t have much say in. I think VDOT felt the Corps’ 2012/2013 position was not on sound footing, particularly after the field studies and that the Corps will (or would) ultimately have to recede and grant the permit. Again, that doesn’t address objections that you and others have to this particular project, but it goes to the fact that the process, while intricate and messy, was observed, and in my mind confirms my view that the big problem here is that the McAuliffe administration is committed, for political reasons, to killing the project. That’s where the initial expenditure of funds goes up in smoke.

        No doubt more will be said on this.

  13. PS and BTW: Where does this $300m figure come from? I sure wasn’t able to reconstruct it. It seems like a number that someone started throwing around and it has just become part of the landscape. If the point is that there has been a lot of activity on this project to date and it has cost non-trivial sums of money to bring it this far, OK. I can see that. But the number itself seems greatly exaggerated.

  14. Thanks, Larry. The best I was coming up with was somewhere in the high $100m range. I’ll look at this.

    That leads to another aside. VDOT has removed all kinds of stuff from the website about this project in the past few weeks. Key documents such as the FEIS and the Record of Decision have gone poof, at least as far as my retrieval capabilities are concerned. They used to all be there. I see no good reason for all these disappearances. Fortunately, because of the complexity of the project, the documents exist at other sites and one can cobble things together, sort of. If they start disappearing elsewhere, then I’m going to don my tinfoil hat.

    • @scout

      sometimes you can search a site without using their links or search and if the info is still there but just not linked… you can get to it

      this way:

      US 460 EIS site:www.virginiadot.org

      left side – what you’re looking for

      right side – the website

      the keyword “site:” connects the two..

  15. Scout, you raise fair issues about the Army Corps of Engineers. The permitting process does seem long and cumbersome, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if environmentalists were working behind the scenes through the corps to deep-six the Rt. 460 project. But knowing that the Corps can be unpredictable and difficult is all the more reason for the McDonnell administration to have gotten the wetlands permit before spending hundreds of millions of dollars. The fact that a bureaucratic process is a cumbersome pain in the butt is no justification for trying to run an end run around it.

    To my mind, the interesting issue is whether the McAuliffe administration could get around the wetlands issue by coughing up money for some extra wetlands mitigation. I think that was Sean Connaughton’s view. I’m surprised that no one has publicly explored that possibility. If we can salvage $300 million in state expenditures by spending $50 million (to pick a number out of a hat) on wetland mitigation, that might not be a bad trade-off at this point. I wish I had time to dig into the issue but I don’t.

    • re: the COE

      if you diss the COE, you will regret it.

      with every agency, there is latitude.

      it’s never about one project. – it’s about a pattern over time.

      There are many states that have no problems with the COE because they involve the COE from the get go.

      If you tell the COE – we’re going to run over you – what kind of sense does that make ?

      It’s like a bureaucratic championship pissing contest.

      I personally think the way we do wetlands and wetland mitigation is wrong but then again I also feel the way that VDOT does business on new roads is wrong so geeze who should I hate more?

      we worry about the COE when we see how VDOT does business on things like the Cville bypass?

      you feel sympathy for VDOT?

      the COE did not trip up VDOT on the Cville bypass and the COE, in general does not trip up VDOT – they do that all by themselves…

      You do not openly diss a Federal agency that has some input into your mission.

      It’s like VDOT is giving the finger to FHWA. dumb. dumb. dumb.

    • The extent of the wetlands issues still isn’t pinned down. The SEIS would provide the best read on how much mitigation we’re talking about. I think VDOT thought it was “mitigatable”, and, perhaps more important, thought it fairly clear that the Corps was over-reaching and would not be able to deny a permit when it came down to it. The Corps had tried this relocation stunt in Indiana on a big road project and got shot down pretty decisively (in a decision by one of my favorite federal judges, Richard Posner) in July 2013. The cases have a lot of similarity. I think VDOT’s lawyers viewed that case as calling the Corps weak hand and felt that the permitting would fall into place.

      • re: COE

        there are “wetlands” and there are “WETLANDS”.

        the COE has in the past claimed that typically drained land was a wetland if it was periodically “wet” – and their criteria was “hydric” soils that supported vegetation that typically was found on that kind of soils and not on uplands.

        it has been an issue in Eastern Virginia with developers also.

        but the way the COE views it is pretty simple:

        Nonwetlands

        28. The following definition, diagnostic environmental characteristics, and technical approach comprise a guideline for the identification and delineation of nonwetlands:

        a. Definition. Nonwetlands include uplands and lowland areas that are neither deepwater aquatic habitats, wetlands, nor other special aquatic sites. They are seldom or never inundated, or if frequently inundated, they have saturated soils for only brief periods during the growing season, and, if vegetated, they normally support a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life only in aerobic soil conditions.

        http://www.wetlands.com/coe/87manp2a.htm

        now – there is “wiggle room” – and sometimes COE can, in the view of particular judges be reaching.

        but the description is pretty clear largely and the issue is that – this criteria is more precise – and stricter than back in the days when the COE were dam-builders with VDOT-tactics.

        @Scout – is this the decision you were referring to:

        ” IND. DECISIONS – 7TH CIRCUIT DECIDES ONE INDIANA CASE TODAY
        In Hoosier Env. Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (SD Ind., McKinney), a 21-page opinion, Judge Posner writes:”

        http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2013/07/ind_decisions_7_644.html

        If that is the case – the COE issued the permit but environmentalists said it was wrong to issue it.

        Remember also – the FHWA is the ‘higher’ authority in Indiana and Virginia and their reviews and rulings have to be consistent and legally defensible or all manner of lawsuits would hit them on their arbitrary and capricious actions.

        IF it was ONLY one or two road projects in Va with COE issues – I might agree…

        VDOT – and others are frustrated by changes in the regulations that make off-limits things that used to be permitted.

        I still wonder – under the current regulatory rules – if a road like I-64 could meet the new stricter requirements for wetlands.

        these same kinds of restrictions keep an Eastern Bypass of DC from being feasible.

        but I’m not convinced this was as much a COE issue as it was a finance issue.

        Basically, forgetting the COE objections, this road could not be 100% self-supporting as a toll road – and it appears that in order to attract an operator – Va was going to guarantee a return for the company – no matter how large the subsidies Virginia would have to pay – to keep the road going.

        but how can you blame the COE anyhow when VDOT has chosen from the get go – to not be transparent about the SDEIS and wetlands issue?

        I find it hard to have sympathy for VDOT when they operate with such arrogance in the first place.

  16. Larry – you’re quite right about the Corps’ action in the Indiana matter. I was sloppy in my description. But the point stands. Judge Posner made the point that the permitting tail shouldn’t wag the transportation dog (I think that was his phrase or something very close to it). The case led me to believe in a matter that I am involved with in another state, that the Corps would not be able to sustain its siting objections in the 460 matter, particularly if the SEIS confirms the initial findings that the Corps’ preferred route had greater wetlands and residential impacts than VDOT’s chosen approach.

    In this matter FHWA has been pretty much in synch with VDOT all along and has been forthcoming with approvals. The disparate views have been coming from the Corps, not the FHWA.

    • re: ” that the Corps would not be able to sustain its siting objections ”

      curious about process…

      if the Corps refuses to issue a permit – can FHWA or a Judge force them to?

      has the Corps ever been ordered to issue a permit?

      I’ve seen cases where the public has challenged that a permit was wrongly issues and the Corp was told to go back ad re-process the permit following the process they were alleged to have not followed but not sure I’ve ever seen the opposite where FHWA or a judge believed the Corp wrongly said the the proposal failed the permit process.

      Normally – what the NEPA EIS does – is inventory resources and opponents work to prove that resources of a certain type or quality do exist but were not included in the inventory.

      The SDEIS usually gets ordered by FHWA when they essentially agree that certain information did not get disclosed, inventoried, i.e. more information not developed and not considered.

      not arguing.. just trying to understand how the process works.

  17. In the Outer Connector issue about 10 years back in the Fredericksburg Area, VDOT issued a DEIS that did not recognize or designate historic civil war sites that NPS said existed and should be included.

    But VDOT said that the State Historic Resources office had not designated and refused to ask the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Opponents hired a consultant to research and delineate the districts from historic records and submitted their report -upon which the ACHP adopted and designated which effectively removed from consideration those places for the road unless there was no other practicable alternative.

    Opponents of US 460 (like the SELC) would have done something similar had VDOT continued forward – the opponents would have argued that wetlands existed that had not been recognized.

    here, read this letter from SELC to FHWA –

    http://www.southernenvironment.org/uploads/pages/file/FHWA_letter_on_460_Wetlands_10-29-13.pdf

    I think that letter played a significant role in FHWA view and Va’s decision to pull the plug as it gave clear intent on the part of SELC to pursue the issue.

    No one in any position of authority could have read this letter – and believe there was not legal trouble ahead – not from the Corp – from opponents.

  18. there’s an interesting article at the Hampton Daily Press today:

    ” “The CTB has no approval role as it currently stands in the P3 process,” Layne said on Wednesday at the board’s monthly meeting in Charlottesville. “Neither does the legislature. It totally exists outside the normal procurement rules.”

    Layne’s proposal came after he briefed the board on the Route 460 project, a public-private partnership to build a new 55-mile road with tolls linking Suffolk to the Richmond area and providing better access to Interstate 95 for trucks from the Port of Virginia. Tolls were to be about 7 cents per mile for cars and about 21 cents per mile for trucks, according to state Highways Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick.

    The project was to be funded by a combination of $904 million in state highway funds, $240 million in bonds and $250 million from the Virginia Port Authority. The CTB received a briefing on the project in 2012, but was not shown the contract nor told of its payment schedule.

    The project had received initial approval from the Federal Highway Administration, and environmental permits usually follow such action. But the Army Corps of Engineers would not grant a permit for the new route because it affected more than 550 acres of wetlands in the path.

    The state paid the contractor, US 460 Mobility Partners, $240 million on the project before Layne halted work and the monthly multi-million dollar payments in March while VDOT conducted new environmental studies of alternate routes. Additionally, VDOT has spent $43 million on the project, bringing the total to more than $280 million before any actual construction work began.”

    http://www.dailypress.com/news/traffic/dp-nws-ctb-public-private-resolution-20140515,0,6203003.story

    so the CTB has no role in PPTA and neither does the GA and VDOT has been paying 19+ million a month to a private company on a road that has no approval.

    ” He [Aubrey] defended the decision to stop US 460 Mobility’s work, noting that the contract called for the monthly payments to escalate to as much as $35 million, but no work could be done until the studies were finished and a new route determined. Layne said US 460 Mobility wants to continue work on the project if a permit is issued. He said the state should know what the proposed route will look like in September, and VDOT hopes to have the permit by December. But the risk remains.”

    so.. VDOT was paying Mobility Partners millions of dollars per month to work on preliminary engineering on a road that has no approval of any route.

    I don’t think this is a COE problem… except only in the most ancillary way, i.e. COE was supposed to fold up and issue permits or VDOT was going to spend the money anyhow.

    Seems to me – even if you disagree with the COE – you still have to acknowledge their existence and ability to deny permits in terms of whether you go forward or not.

    in this case – VDOT went forward without permits, without informing the CTB, without the CTB committing the money as they do with other projects.

    I don’t think we want roads done that way. I wouldn’t think even VDOT would want to do roads that way.

    But I blame the General Assembly for crafting legislation that lacked safeguards and gave VDOT not only autonomy but the ability to do it without oversight.

    there is not that much difference between this project and the Cville Bypass in terms of how they are operating outside of public and govt review in private agreements with private companies..and manipulating the NEPA process to basically evade the fundamental purpose of NEPA – which is transparency and disclosure of projects before Virginia commits funding to them.

    You cannot hunt down VDOT or even McDonnell administration folks – when the law itself was/is so bad that nobody broke any law.

  19. Dude, where’s my car?

  20. “I wrote it more as a comment than a post, and would have taken more pains with it if it were the latter.” – Scout.

    Holy cow, what you wrote was amazing. How much pain should one person endure?

    • there’s another “wiggle” to this tale…

      the P3 is called Mobility Partners …

      but one of the “partners” is American Infrastructure

      guess what other road American Infrastructure built?

      Pocahontas Parkway!

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