CTB to decide on scaled-back U.S. 460 plan

2/18/2015 –

The Commonwealth Transportation Board is poised to decide today whether to move forward with a plan to improve U.S. 460 that is far less ambitious than the proposed 55-mile toll expressway that has cost Virginia almost $300 million with little to show for it.

Meanwhile, Virginia lawmakers are moving ahead with legislation to ensure the state never makes the same mistake again in pushing ahead on high-risk public-private transportation projects without public scrutiny or accountability.

The board is expected to decide whether to accept transportation officials’ recommendation for a 17-mile project to improve the highway between Suffolk and Zuni in southeastern Virginia.

The proposal looks nothing like the 55-mile, high-speed toll expressway that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration committed to build between Petersburg and Suffolk, even though it faced a high risk of not getting a federal permit to damage more than 600 acres of wetlands.

“The project is to a point where we either make the decision to go forward or move off the project,” Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr. said Tuesday.

The decision will determine how the state goes about salvaging the financial commitment it made to US 460 Mobility Partners under a contract the McDonnell administration signed at the end of 2012. Gov. Terry McAuliffe suspended the project last March.

In addition to picking up the pieces of the failed project, the McAuliffe administration is seeking legislation to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“I think this will bring accountability and transparency to the process,” Layne told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

The transportation subcommittee unanimously endorsed the legislation, House Bill 1886, sponsored by House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk. He has been a fierce critic of the U.S. 460 project and other public-private transportation deals pushed by the McDonnell administration.

Jones said in an interview that “460 is the quintessential example of why we need this bill.”

The legislation would create a steering committee that would consider whether a project makes sense to pursue under the Public-Private Transportation Act. The committee would include staff of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees, as well as state finance officials.

The bill also would require that the lead state transportation official on a project make a finding that the deal is in the public interest, and come back for further review if the risks outbalance the rewards.

The McDonnell administration proposed the U.S. 460 deal as a public-private partnership, but it became a more traditional design-build project that shifted the risk almost entirely to the state instead of a private partner.

The proposed legislation also would require risks to the state to be identified and addressed before reaching a final agreement with a private partner.

By MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch