No construction yet: who’s responsible for spending $300 million - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

No construction yet: who’s responsible for spending $300 million on hurricane evacuation route?

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

It's a nightmare scenario: nearly a million people are forced to evacuate from the coast, as a hurricane takes aim at Virginia.

One of the solutions now on the table – build a massive $1.4 billion dollar highway to ease congestion.  But after more than 10 years in the making, critics contend the plan has gone nowhere fast.

Nothing has been built, even after Virginia taxpayers spent more than $300 million to revamp an ageing Route 460. The highway would serve as a new express connector between the coast and Prince George, 90 miles inland.

Just one problem: Virginia's secretary of transportation tells us, even after taxpayers have spent millions of dollars, the environmental permits to build are not yet approved.

"There's no good way to explain why we're sitting here today with $300 million out the door, and not had a permit," said Aubrey Layne, Virginia's secretary of transportation.

What's to blame? Well it all starts with wetlands. At first, 500 acres laid in the path of the new Route 460. But decision-makers weren't told about the huge hurdles, and problematic permits needed to build there.

That's all according to a recent report commissioned by Layne, who's now in charge of the project. Before he took over as transportation secretary in January, Layne was one of the private business leaders who green-lighted the new 460.

But Layne says two years ago, Governor Bob McDonnell's administration, never revealed concerns about paving over pristine wetlands.

"They weren't required to reveal those concerns," said Layne. "But nobody stood back and said, ‘this is still a risk.'"

The Army Corps of Engineers raised concerns, and said it would not allow construction. But that did not stop Virginia tax dollars from being spent.

$60 million so far has gone to VDOT for preparation work and project management. $240 million has been sent to US 460 Mobility, the company hired to make the designs and build the highway. $100 million of that money alone is for environmental work, such as extensive soil boring.

The funds have largely stopped since Layne put the project on hold in March.

"I believe it was a political desire to get this road done very quickly," said Layne. "I believe a little bit of it was VDOT. They believed they were going to get the permit."

So with $300 million spent and nothing built yet, who is to blame?

McDonnell Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton pitched the project in 2012 without talking about the wetland worries. We asked him in an email if he withheld information, and we are still waiting for a response.

"I'll leave that to others to decide, [if information was withheld]," Layne said. "My personal opinion, I don't think there was an intent to withhold, but certainly, there was a move to move this project along quickly."

For now, a decision will be made by the end of the year, on which of five new options can be built. The worst case that could still unfold, nothing is built, with the state forced to pay up to $500 million in obligations.

"I'm confident something will be built, and we will get a permit," Layne said. "The chances of the worst case scenario unfolding are diminished."

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