The decision by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to put the brakes on the Route 460 improvement project represents a responsible course of action. The transportation situation in Hampton Roads demands every dollar be spent efficiently.
The governor did not terminate the project but rather protected public money until the best path forward can be mapped. Virginia has spent nearly $300 million with precious little to show for it, and there is no assurance it will even receive the federal permit needed to begin construction.
There may be a light at the end of our bridge-tunnels. Ending our daily traffic jams and frustrating commutes is within reach. Ideas once considered impossible now seem plausible.
For the first time in memory, Hampton Roads can get ahead of the curve on improving regional transportation. A combination of funding sources, including the $1.1 billion from last year's transportation bill, could see Hampton Roads amass some $25 billion for road construction in the next quarter-century.
Using the money successfully requires prudent, responsible decisions. Local and state officials must select projects with an eye toward maximizing their effectiveness. Each should serve as economic assets and improve our overall quality of life.
These principles apply to Route 460.
The 55-mile road, with an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, would create a Prince George County-Suffolk corridor. The governor and Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne suspended contract and permit work earlier this month.
When the roadway was proposed in 2012, its priority surprised many area officials. Other projects seemed more pressing than an additional route connecting southeast Virginia to the East Coast's major north-south highway.
Gov. Bob McDonnell argued the roadway could alleviate traffic on I-64, which would be a major boost to those living on Southside. It had public safety value by serving as an alternate evacuation route when a hurricane bears down on the region.
Proponents also pitched the plan as necessary to the Port of Virginia's future and beneficial to the Hampton Roads economy. The port is working to accommodate Panamax ships, which are larger vessels capable of navigating the renovated Panama Canal, but needs efficient road access to flourish. Route 460 is considered an integral part of the solution.
We see the merits in those arguments and do not dismiss them, but we are skeptical about spending this much money, at this time, on this roadway. There are more critical needs and more promising projects.
If alleviating congestion and speeding travel to the state capital is a priority, then accelerating the widening of I-64 would serve those ends. Similarly, the bridge-tunnel tie-ups might be addressed by strongly considering a third crossing. Even the roads themselves need repaving and motorists could reap great benefit from that modest project.
The chosen path for the roadway requires the development of about 500 acres of wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration raised concerns about the mitigation the route would need as a result. Absent a federal permit, the road cannot be built and Virginia has no assurance it will fulfill the requirements to pass muster.
Shortly after his election, Gov. McAuliffe publically questioned whether an investment in Route 460 was the most efficient and smart use of public funding. We agree the commonwealth should not fritter away an additional $1 billion without assurance of necessity and feasibility.
Mr. Layne said the money already allocated for the project remains that way. There are $244 million in bonds and the money the port has agreed to put into the project. So until they complete the environmental assessment, which should take about a year, the state remains officially committed to the project.
Gov. McAuliffe brought Mr. Layne to Richmond to manage transportation matters and there he brings extensive experience with this region to his post. Virginia's transportation secretary was chairman of the Route 460 Funding Corporation and is very knowledgeable about this project. The governor made an informed decision.
Hampton Roads cannot afford to waste transportation money. The Route 460 project may not be a dead end, but it is a gamble too risky to take at this time.