If you’re new to the U.S. 460 Connector controversy and need a primer to bring you up to speed, I’d recommend you read the new Virginia Business cover story written by Paula Squires. She provides an digestible overview of a complex story and advances public understanding with some fresh reporting.
In particular, she homes in on a central question for which I have yet to see a clear, concise explanation: How did the Virginia Department of Transportation come to pay $250 million to its public-private partner in the $1.4 billion project, US Mobility Partners, before critical wetlands permits were issued by the Army Corps of Engineers?
Squires does not provide the answer but she gets us closer to the answer. She interviewed Charlie Kilpatrick, the current highway commissioner who was deputy commissioner under the McDonnell administration.
Asked why the state signed off on such a high-risk project, Kilpatrick says, “It was a high risk if a permit was not obtained. When we went to closing [in December 2012], we believed that we had a permittable project.” However, he adds, “It was recognized from the beginning that this was going to be a complex and challenging permitting process.”
As a VDOT veteran, Kilpatrick observes “I don’t know that it has ever happened in Virginia, where a project was not ultimately permitted, after it went through the regulatory steps … I do think we will get a permit.”
According to him, pressure from the McDonnell administration played a role in how the project was handled. “This project was a clear priority of Governor McDonnell,” Kilpatrick says. “Move it as quickly as possible … Deliver the project. Get it under construction.”
Those were VDOT’s marching orders, he recalls. “VDOT’s job here was to deliver. The project — it complied with the law.”
The state agency began to balk, though, after the original route became questionable last September because of its wetlands impact. The administration wanted to begin right-of-way proceedings and public hearings.
“We said no,” says Kilpatrick. “We’re not going to go out and acquire right of way, because we don’t have a permit … I had the potential of VDOT purchasing land that would not fit with an ultimate road alignment … To have a public hearing on a roadway that may need to shift the alignment, that’s not a prudent thing to do.”
Boiling it down: In December 2012 VDOT believed that it had a “permittable project.” In other words, there were issues but VDOT believed they could be worked out, as they always had been before. What’s still not clear to me is what happened after December 2012 to disabuse VDOT of the notion that the permitting issues could be resolved within an acceptable time frame. Did some new knowledge come to light? Did the Army Corps of Engineers become more assertive in expressing its concerns? I’m sure the answer is out there, possibly buried in the McAuliffe administration’s internal review. It just hasn’t been brought forth clearly in the media.
(This article first ran in Bacons Rebellion on July 7, 2014)