The proposed new U.S. Route 460 is one project that does not make sense economically or environmentally, and we agree with your recent statements about the wisdom of halting further spending on this project pending careful reconsideration of its merits. We believe the new Route 460 proposal is clearly not in the best interests of the Commonwealth, and therefore urge you to take the further step of terminating this project.
The McDonnell Administration has heavily promoted this proposed new 55-mile, 4-lane limited access toll road running parallel to the existing and underutilized U.S. Route 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg. The current price tag for the project is approximately $1.4 billion, with taxpayers picking up the tab for almost $1.2 billion and the public covering the remaining $250 million through tolls. In addition, taxpayers will have to pay to maintain both the existing and the new Route 460. As we outline below, this costly new highway would cause significant environmental harm, yet it would do little to address the critical transportation needs of the Hampton Roads region.
Although millions of dollars have been expended to date in an ill-advised rush by the McDonnell Administration to advance an un-permitted project, the lion’s share of the public funds set aside for this project could be saved and would be better spent if redirected to more effective and higher transportation priorities in the region, such as upgrading the existing Route 460, enhancing rail in the Route 460 corridor, improving I-64 and U.S. Route 58, building the Hampton Roads Third Crossing/Patriots Crossing Project (including a component for enhanced high capacity transit), and/or extending the TIDE Light Rail to Virginia Beach. In addition, consideration should be given to buying down the cost of tolls that will be imposed on the Midtown/Downtown Tunnel to reduce the impacts on local residents, businesses and the economies of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake.
Severe Environmental Damage
The environmental impacts of the proposed new Route 460 would be severe. It was recently disclosed in VDOT’s application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit that the project would destroy 479 acres of wetlands, which would be the largest amount of wetland destruction authorized for any Virginia transportation project since the Clean Water Act and its provisions protecting wetlands were enacted in 1972. This figure is also nearly four times higher than what was presented in the 2008 Environmental Impact Statement for this project, raising a major question about whether the project can even obtain a Section 404 permit (and leading one to wonder if the proposal would even have survived the initial National Environmental Policy Act review had the public and federal and state decision-makers had accurate information in front of them during that process). The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal permitting agency, has long expressed concerns about the damage the project would cause, and put VDOT on notice in early 2013 that it was proceeding at its own risk by entering into a contract and issuing bonds prior to submitting a permit application—and that was before the latest information on wetlands impacts came to light. The project also would directly impact over 3,000 acres of farms and open space, harm miles of streams, worsen air quality, threaten critical habitat of endangered species, and spur inefficient sprawl development along its lengthy route.
Every one of the justifications for the proposed new Route 460 can be more effectively accomplished at lower cost to taxpayers by investing in other alternatives.
Traffic and Safety
According to VDOT, a key objective of the project is to improve traffic and safety conditions on the existing Route 460 by drawing more vehicles onto the new highway. Yet a recent VDOT analysis shows that tolls at the price level currently proposed for the new Route 460 would drastically lower traffic projections for the new highway, from a range of 34,500 to 58,500 vehicles per day in the year 2040 without tolls, to just 16,300 to 27,500 vehicles per day with tolls. In other words, over half of the projected traffic on an untolled highway would use other routes and facilities if the highway is tolled at the proposed amount, leaving far more traffic on existing Route 460. Further, past VDOT analysis has indicated that tolling would cause an even greater reduction (60%) in the traffic projections for heavy trucks compared to an untolled new Route 460, further undermining the effectiveness of the proposal in improving traffic and safety conditions along the existing, toll-free highway.
Freight and Economic Development
Other reasons cited as justifying the need for a new Route 460 include freight movement and economic development. Yet an increasing percentage of freight shipments from the Port of Virginia is being handled by rail, and the freight in the Hampton Roads region carried by trucks is primarily being handled by I-64 and Route 58. The trucks using I-64 to access and exit Hampton Roads would benefit more directly from the Patriots Crossing project. Route 58 is a divided four-lane highway that already connects to I-95 and I-85 to the west. Thus, an entirely new and parallel limited-access highway would be particularly redundant, and for the small percentage of freight trucks that use Route 460, upgrades to the existing highway would improve safety. In addition, and as noted above, VDOT’s own analysis shows that tolling the new Route 460 would divert 60% of heavy freight trucks away from this new highway that might otherwise have used a free facility, severely limiting the utility of building a new facility.
Regarding economic development, significant questions have been raised concerning the reliability of the Route 460 economic benefits study commissioned by the McDonnell Administration and conducted by consultants Chmura Economics & Analytics in 2011. Many of the report’s economic benefit assumptions are based on an average projected traffic volume on the new Route 460 of 25,244 vehicles per day in the year 2020, whereas VDOT’s own more recent traffic projections show that tolling will result in a far lower average of just 21,163 vehicles per day twenty years later, in 2040. Also questionable is that the report appears to credit construction of the new Route 460 with the possible creation of thousands of new jobs and over $1.3 billion in new spending associated with anticipated growth of the Port of Virginia, when in reality the vast majority of this new growth stemming from the Port is projected to occur regardless of whether the new Route 460 project is completed. The economic benefits of the new Route 460 should be thoroughly reviewed and compared to projects such as Patriots Crossing, which the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization has scored higher than the new Route 460 in terms of supporting economic growth and job creation for the region.
Hurricane Evacuation and Military Connectivity
The proposed new Route 460 also does not appear to be necessary or effective in meeting other objectives set forth for the project, such as hurricane evacuation and improving military connectivity. For example, significant hurricane evacuation potential can be realized by reversing eastbound lanes on the existing Routes 58 and 460 when necessary, and it is the bottlenecks on the local roads leading to these highways that are the true impediment to effective evacuation from this region—not the existing Route 460. Further, the McDonnell Administration has provided no evidence that the military views the new Route 460 project as a high priority, whereas military leaders have made clear that they prioritize projects such as Patriots Crossing, the Midtown Tunnel, extension of the light rail, improved access to facilities in the “Navy Triangle,” and other improvements to the Hampton Roads bridge and tunnel system.
We urge you to immediately request the McDonnell Administration to halt ongoing and planned work on this project (including engineering, design, and right-of-way acquisition) until you have taken office, so that you can fully and objectively reconsider this project in light of its severe environmental harms and its limited benefits in comparison to other projects in this region. We hope you will agree that this project is unnecessary and would waste scarce resources that should instead be invested in projects that can do far more to address Hampton Roads’ critical transportation needs.