Va. transportation secretary puts brakes on 460

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - Virginia is halting work on a new toll road that would run parallel to U.S. 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg until an environmental review is complete, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said on Friday.

The $1.4 billion, 55-mile limited-access highway is intended to provide an alternative route to Interstate 64 for traffic heading to and from the state’s port terminals, relieve congestion for travelers and help expedite hurricane evacuations. Construction on the road was originally scheduled to begin this spring, but has not yet started.

The road was a priority of former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. But when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office earlier this year, his administration began reviewing how the project should proceed because of well-known issues involving streams and wetlands along the route that could prevent it from securing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He said the suspension of contract and permit work is needed so the Virginia Department of Transportation can be sure it will get the necessary approvals before moving forward with the highway.

Layne said the issues with the route - which could displace more than 400 acres of wetlands - had been known about for years. The Southern Environmental Law Center had previously written to the Federal Highway Administration asking that work on the highway be halted while it is re-evaluated.

“I wish we would have reached a conclusion before now that we should have done what we’re doing now, but we are where we are,” Layne told reporters at a news conference announcing the decision.

Layne called his decision to cut spending while those reviews are underway a “prudent and practical” move. The state has already spent about $300 million on the project and will save about $35 million a month over the next year while contractor work is suspended. The money spent so far has covered design, mobilization and other permit costs, among other things.

He said the environmental review will be conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation with the aid of consultants and probably take about a year. Despite the delay, he said the state remains committed to moving forward with a U.S. 460 project.

“There’s no hesitation about our commitment to move forward with improvements in the corridor. The hesitation comes to making sure we have a permit before we begin work in earnest again,” he told reporters at a news conference. “The need and purpose for these improvements still remains.”

Layne said a decision on what shape the road will take will be made once the review is done.

“I cannot tell you today what the road may look like. I cannot tell you today if it’s a toll facility,” he said.

The contract for the highway was awarded in 2012 to US 460 Mobility Partners. Layne said the company would not be liable for repaying the money that’s already been spent if the project is scrapped or altered. Layne suggested that it could be possible the project could take the form of expanding the existing U.S. 460 or using another route, although it’s not immediately clear how much either choice would take.

“The actions taken today are the most expedient way to get this project done and, quite frankly, I believe it is the only way we get this project done,” Layne said.

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Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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