A few years ago, Alaska’s proposed “Bridge to Nowhere” became a national symbol of wasteful government spending on little-needed projects.
Now Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has pushed through his own version of this embarrassment, a $1.4 billion highway outside Hampton Roads that qualifies as a “Road for Nobody.”
McDonnell has perplexed people across the state by his insistence on adding a tolled, four-lane highway parallel to U.S. 460. It will stretch for 55 miles from Petersburg, a Richmond suburb, southeast to Suffolk.
The deal signed in December to build the road is especially insulting to traffic-jammed Northern Virginia, where the need for precious transportation dollars is dramatically greater. Tolls on the new road are expected to cover less than a fifth of the cost.
Numbers tell the story. McDonnell will have Virginia build an entirely new highway to share the traffic on U.S. 460, which carries an average of 9,200 to 17,000 vehicles a day.
By contrast, Fairfax County doesn’t have funds to expand, say, Braddock Road — which, near the Beltway, carries 70,000 vehicles a day.
Local authorities also would like to add two lanes to the Fairfax County Parkway, where volume near the Dulles Toll Road is 63,000 vehicles a day.
McDonnell’s top roads guy, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, argues that volume will rise on the new U.S. 460 as the Hampton Roads port expands in coming decades.
“For once, we’re planning ahead,” he said.
But according to the state’s own projections, the total, combined volume on the new and old U.S. 460 will be just 23,000 vehicles a day by 2035.
That’s still less than half the volume on the above-mentioned roads in Northern Virginia. Plus, our region is sure to expand as well, and probably faster than Hampton Roads.
Northern Virginia, because of its relatively strong economy, pays the bills for everybody else in the Old Dominion. Still, I concede it shouldn’t get to scoop up all of the state’s available transportation dollars. Hampton Roads also has major traffic problems that need addressing.
However, the plan to build a new U.S. 460 lacks support even from many movers and shakers in the region it’s supposed to serve. The Hampton Roads Partnership, a major organization of business, political and other civic leaders, would much rather spend money first on other projects that it thinks would have more impact.
In particular, it stresses the need to build a bridge-tunnel called Patriot’s Crossing to link downtown Interstates 564 and 664. That would directly relieve the notorious congestion at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, which regularly suffers backups of five miles or more.
“Route 460 isn’t a bad thing. We just felt that we’d rather see other projects, more in the core of our region. To relieve and alleviate congestion would be very important to pursue first,” said Donna Morris, interim president of the Hampton Roads Partnership.
Connaughton maintains that there’s not enough money for a bridge-tunnel like Patriot’s Crossing, which is more expensive than the new U.S. 460. So, he says, the state is doing what it can, given the resources available.
The argument is not persuasive. He and McDonnell are engaged in a massive battle in the General Assembly right now to try to come up with billions in additional revenue, when they could have saved about a billion just by postponing a highway project that few see as urgent.
For many Virginia transportation specialists, the governor’s unyielding support for U.S. 460 is a puzzle.
“People who look at this project just keep scratching their heads,” said Trip Pollard, director of the land and community program at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “To me, it doesn’t make sense from a fiscal, traffic or environmental perspective. But he is completely committed to moving it forward.”
One theory is that he’s fulfilling a long-held goal. McDonnell has strongly backed a new U.S. 460 since he represented Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates.
Another hypothesis is that it’s all about legacy. He wants to point to a major road for which he can take full credit after he leaves office next January.
The highway would be a lot more impressive if more than a comparative trickle of people were going to use it.
I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.