The Route 460 Corridor project, also known as the Commonwealth Connector, has a splashy website touting the many benefits southeastern Virginia will realize from the proposed 55-mile toll road.
But that and about $250 million in preliminary engineering costs may well be all the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has to show for its three-year effort to make the Connector a reality, at least for the foreseeable future.
On Friday, March 14, state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne issued a stop-work order on the $1.4 billion project, citing extended difficulties in securing the necessary environmental permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.
Concerns have also been raised over continued monthly payments to the project’s design/build contractor US 460 Mobility Partners, composed of Ferrovial Agroman, S.A. and American Infrastructure, despite the seeming lack of progress on the $1.4 billion project since its financial close in late 2012.
Though Layne called the stoppage temporary, the state’s re-evaluation will almost certainly take into account growing disenchantment with a project that few in the region ever professed to want.
Developed during the administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who left office earlier this year, the Commonwealth Connector was originally envisioned as a high-speed connector between Virginia’s Hampton Roads region and the I-95/I-85 junction in Petersburg that would be built and operated as a public-private partnership (P3).
Though project proponents touted the Connector’s value as an express route for beach-bound tourists, and an emergency evacuation corridor during hurricanes and other potential disasters, it was clear that the bulk of the highway’s users—and its revenue—would come from commercial trucks transporting goods to and from Virginia’s ports, which hope to compete for a share of post-Panama Canal expansion shipping traffic.
In a 2012 interview with ENR, Dusty Holcombe, Deputy Director Va. Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, said the cost of building a high-speed corridor paled against upgrading speed- and stoplight-constrained Route 460 to interstate standards.
Holcombe also estimated that boosting capacity on the frequently congested I-64 corridor between Hampton Roads and Richmond would cost as much as $10 billion. And, the extra 20-30 minutes needed to reach the I-95 corridor via I-64 might not appeal to a shipping industry where time really is money.
Yet the promise of economic growth from the new manufacturing- and shipping-related industries expected to spring up around the Commonwealth Corridor’s seven interchanges failed to win over many supporters. The project encountered resistance from those critical of the route’s environmental disruption, the low number of expected users, and effects on communities along existing Route 460, which currently carries up to 17,000 vehicles a day, and was to remain open as a free alternative.
Nor did the expected P3 participation materialize. Two attempts to offer the project as a full design/build/finance/operate/maintain concession failed to attract significant bids.
That forced VDOT to restructure the financing plan, relying its existing resources, a $422 million TIFIA loan, a $250 million contribution from the Virginia Port Authority, and the sale of bonds by the hastily established non-profit US 460 Funding Corporation of Virginia so that design and construction money would be available up front.
When the agreement with Route 460 Mobility Partners was reached, VDOT hoped construction on the Connector could begin as early as 2015.
Now, the Commonwealth Connector will be sidelined a year as Virginia transportation officials decide its fate. The bellwether of the state’s decision may well be the Commonwealth Corridor’s website. As long as it remains active, the project remains a possibility—at least until the plug is pulled.