Rep. Norm Sisisky (D-Va.) has actively lobbied Virginia highway officials to approve construction of a Petersburg interchange less than a mile from two parcels of land in which he has a $146,000 interest.
Sisisky, a multimillionaire soft drink and beer distributor, acknowledged yesterday that he has met three times with State Highway Commissioner Harold C. King to urge approval of the $6.5 million interchange off Interstate Rte. 95 about 15 miles south of Richmond.
The freshman Democrat said that he was acting solely "to satisfy my constituents" who unanimously supported the agreement he recently worked out allowing construction of the interchange to proceed. He also said he has been an investor in the property for 14 years, informed King of his interest in the land this spring and reported it on his financial disclosure form.
"If I had bought the land after the election, I could see how it would look somewhat funny," Sisisky said in a telephone interview. "But I've had it for 14 years and it's such a small thing compared to my total holdings. If I gave the damn land away it wouldn't make any difference."
Sisisky owns a 22.5 percent interest in The Berkeley Venture, a partnership that owns 150 acres in two tracts--one a subdivision and the other undeveloped but zoned for apartment buildings, just off of Wagner Road in Petersburg. The highway project in question is an interchange at Wagner Road, one of two interchanges in the area that were originally approved in 1981 by then-Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt.
Despite the backing of local officials, complications developed this year when state and federal highway officials raised questions about the project, citing its proximity to an existing interchange at Rives Road, about a mile south of Wagner Road.
In June, the Federal Highway Administration, fearing that the two exits could cause traffic problems, granted approval for the Wagner Road interchange if the state agreed to close Rives Road. After local officials in nearby Prince George County and Hopewell objected, Sisisky says he contacted King and lobbied him to support both interchanges. King said while the state was initially "leaning" towards only Wagner, he was finally persuaded that adjustments could be made to Rives Road that ensure safety.
King said yesterday that Sisisky informed him of his financial interest in land near Wagner Road last March. "Because Mr. Sisisky owns property there in no way influenced the department's decision," said King.
With the state's support, Federal Highway Administrator Ray Barnhart reversed the agency's June decision on July 1, approving construction of Wagner Road and keeping Rives Road open.
"What's the alternative?" replied Sisisky, when asked about his personal role in the negotiations. "I don't do anything and nothing happens. Where does my responsibility lie?"
Construction of the new interchange, said Sisisky, could assist plans for an industrial park in Petersburg, an economically depressed city that has been losing population. Sisisky said he has no idea if the value of his property at Wagner Road will be increased by the construction, but that keeping Rives Road open will make no difference in its value.