Jeffrey Southard, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, calls the new Route 460 Toll Road “a huge economic development opportunity for Southside and Hampton Roads.”

That may well be an understatement.

As a native of Southside Virginia, I’ve always thought of Route 460 as the region’s “Main Streetthe most direct route between the Tri-Cities (Petersburg, Colonial Heights, and my hometown of Hopewell) and the real cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, as well as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

And why not? Route 460 is a four-lane, undivided dead-straight stretch of asphalt through an alternating landscape of farms, small towns, peanut warehouses, and cherished culinary landmarks such as the Virginia Diner in Wakefield (begin personal aside: It’s the next-best thing to real home cooking; trust me. end personal aside).

No, you don’t make time on Route 460, but that’s not the idea. Folks in Southside aren’t usually in that much of a hurry.

But customers of the goods that flow through Hampton Roads’ commercial ports are. And with maritime competition increasing with the opening of the wider Panama Canal drawing near, that 55-mile straight-arrow road may as well be a 200-mile labyrinth.

So after 20 years of planning, Southside’s “Main Street” is on the verge of being bypassed.

Assuming all goes as scheduled, the 460 Mobility Partners design-build-finance team will begin work next year on a $1.3 billion toll road parallel to Route 460. Appropriately scheduled for completion in 2018, the road will give 18-wheelers non-stop access from the ports to the I-95 corridor thanks to a high-tech toll collection system.

There’s also the potential for a variety of development options to emerge alongside the corridor, transforming and diversifying the region’s economic profile.

Before all that happens, however, the Route 460 toll road will have to win over skeptics, including some of the very people its intended to benefit. Officials in Prince George County, the highway’s western end, see the project as more disruptive than beneficial, doing little more than increasing the volume of traffic bound for someplace else.

There’s also skepticism about whether the billion dollars of state money could be better allocated to improving the existing Route 460 and using what’s leftover on the long list of other transportation needs. The project also maxes out Virginia’s transportation bonding authority; as one member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board put it, “this is it for a few more years with no new money coming in.”

Given Virginia’s recent track record with projects of this type, and the heightened importance of its ports in the New Panamax era, the Route 460 toll road stands a fair chance of becoming a reality. While cars will be able to take advantage of the new highway at less cost than the big rigs, here’s hoping that many motorists stick to the original 460, which will remain open as a free alternative.

"Old" 460 may be slow and low-tech, but it will still get you there.