Bob McDonnell will go into history as the first of 72 Virginia governors to be convicted of corruption, but we should remember him as well for a second scandal that cost the taxpayers a ton of money.
McDonnell’s curious, long-standing obsession with building a new highway parallel to U.S. 460 outside Hampton Roads led his administration to spend $300 million (and counting) without first ensuring that the project would receive necessary environmental permits.
Whoops. As some officials and outside critics had warned from the start, a government study issued last month said the federal permits will be virtually impossible to obtain because of the risk of damaging wetlands.
As a result, there is a “very low probability” that the state will try to build the new highway, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said. Instead, the state will carry out cheaper and less environmentally harmful improvements to the existing road stretching southeast from Petersburg to Suffolk.
The outrage here is that McDonnell (R) and his hard-charging transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton, were so determined to shove the project through that they structured the original deal badly.
As a result, the state can’t recoup the $300 million it has spent. That money is gone, wasted, without a spadeful of dirt being turned for a 55-mile highway so little needed that I previously dubbed it the Road for Nobody.
“When you cut through it all, it really was a miscalculation and error in assessing the risk of getting the [environmental] permit,” Layne said. “The risk taken on this seems to be extraordinary.”
He said the cost could rise to $400 million, or $500 million in a worst-case scenario.
By contrast, for McDonnell’s corruption trial, taxpayers coughed up just under $1 million for private lawyers to represent the governor’s former staffers. The overall price was higher because of other costs, but there’s no doubt the highway debacle was vastly more damaging to the public coffers.
Of course, I’m not minimizing the gravity of McDonnell’s conviction on 11 felony counts. A federal jury found decisively that the governor betrayed the public trust in the office once held by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.
But the U.S. 460 fiasco, which has received a fraction of the publicity, is also a major stain on his governorship.
McDonnell’s fellow Republicans are not letting party loyalty stand in the way of their indignation.
“There is no way to make this appear as anything other than what it is, which is a major foul-up,” Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) said.
While there were good reasons to build a new or improved road in that corridor, he said, the McDonnell administration acted without adequate oversight from the General Assembly.
“When the taxpayers’ money is at stake, there needs to be more transparency,” Lingamfelter said.
Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was equally appalled.
“It certainly leaves one speechless,” Jones said. “The terms of the deal were very unfavorable to the commonwealth, and we should have never signed.”
Jones, who held a hearing on the issue in April, said he was pushing to obtain more information about who was responsible.
“We are trying to get correspondence, e-mails, etc., that can give us a clearer picture of who made what decision,” he said.
That’s important, because the Richmond political elite has shown surprisingly little interest in getting to the bottom of what went wrong.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in June that a pending internal state review “was hampered by the inability of investigators to access documents and records produced or kept by the McDonnell administration.”
If a full-scale investigation is ever undertaken, perhaps we can finally clear up why McDonnell was so eager to build this road. He had been pushing for it for years, ever since he represented Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates.
The official explanation is that the new road was necessary for the sake of hurricane evacuations and to handle increased cargo moving through Hampton Roads when the Panama Canal is widened.
But it is still perplexing that a governor who ostensibly took pride in his frugality wanted to spend $1.4 billion on a highway that so few would use.
The new road, together with the old one, was projected to carry just 23,000 vehicles a day by 2035. That’s a fraction of what congested roads in Northern Virginia carry today. Braddock Road in Fairfax has 70,000 vehicles a day near the Beltway.
In that sense, Virginians should be grateful that the environmental objections halted this boondoggle.
But they should also demand that the authorities uncover why they lost at least $300 million in the process.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.