By Travis Fain | December 10, 2016
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell defended his administration’s deals on U.S. 460 and the Downtown/Midtown tunnels recently, suggesting that federal authorities and the McAuliffe administration torpedoed one project and that the other represented the best deal Virginia could have made at the time.
Both projects have been widely criticized. One cost the state some $200 million without a road being built. The other came with 56 years of escalating tolls paid to a conglomerate that will expand, maintain and operate the tunnels.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has blasted both deals repeatedly as among the worst negotiations he’s ever seen.
The former governor sat with the Daily Press last week. He has defended these projects before, but this was his most detailed public discussion on the matter since leaving office, and since the U.S. 460 deal crumbled. McDonnell largely avoided press interviews the last three years as he fought federal corruption charges, ultimately winning a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
The state, he said last week, didn’t have money for large construction projects when the U.S. 460 and Downtown/Midtown deals were struck. A 2013 deal to increase transportation taxes was still on the wish-list at the time, which meant turning to the private sector, he said.
Both U.S. 460 and the Downtown/Midtown tunnel projects had lingered. Both were priorities for Hampton Roads, which McDonnell represented for 14 years in the House of Delegates. McDonnell said he told Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton: “Let’s not make any more excuses. … You go find a way to get it done.”
The McAuliffe administration tells a similar story, but less complimentary. Current Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne told the Daily Press editorial board recently that McDonnell’s insistence on getting 460 and the Downtown/Midtown projects underway before he left office undercut his negotiating power.
McDonnell said the McAuliffe administration has been unfair in its criticism of the 460 and Downtown/Midtown projects, and he suggested the administration, Federal Highway Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers pulled the rug out from under a 460 project that he “absolutely” believed reasonable.
“Some of the information that’s come out of the current administration about this project is wrong,” McDonnell said. “I think that there was a torpedoing of the route that was selected by our Transportation Board for environmental or political reasons.”
“What incentive would we have had to have done that?” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy responded.
Under McDonnell, U.S. 460 was supposed to be a 55-mile project from Suffolk to Petersburg, much of it a new, tolled, interstate-style highway. It would serve truck traffic from the Port of Virginia and represent a vast improvement in hurricane evacuations, in part because existing portions of the highway flood now in heavy rain.
The McAuliffe administration still backs a scaled-down version of the project for many of the same reasons McDonnell and other Hampton Roads leaders pushed their version. But the governor canceled the more ambitious plan after learning the state was spending $19 million a month on a project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned it would be unlikely to permit under federal environmental regulations.
McDonnell told the Daily Press he believes there was “an awful lot of change of protocol and change of mind by the Army Corps of Engineers along the way.” He said a Record of Decision was issued for the project during former Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration, leading him to believe the project could move forward.
But that document was signed by a Federal Highway Administration administrator, not the Corps of Engineers. It specifically noted that a wetlands permit from the Corps would still be needed for construction to start.
“The Corps was telling them all along, ‘We think you’re going to have a hard time getting a permit for this project,'” said Tripp Pollard, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who followed the project closely.
Initially, planners thought the new route would run through about 130 acres of wetlands, but the Virginia Department of Transportation later said that was based on old maps and outdated work. By September 2013, McDonnell’s last full year in office, the total had shot up to 480 acres.
“I can’t tell you how that happened, but I am very concerned about what kind of work was done by the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration to somehow create a narrative that this project was too environmentally destructive and too expensive, because that’s not what happened during my watch,” McDonnell said.
A Corps spokesman agreed to arrange interviews about the project this week, but did not follow through. The Corps has said repeatedly, and a February 2013, letter shows, that it warned McDonnell’s administration the permit would be difficult to obtain. The wetlands mitigation required to build the road would have been the largest in Virginia history.
In both the U.S. 460 deal and the Downtown/Midtown tunnels, critics say the McDonnell administration gave too much away to the state’s private partners. U.S. Mobility, the corporate entity created by construction giants Ferrovial Agroman and American Infrastructure to build and run U.S. 460, spent none of its own money on the failed project.
Elizabeth River Crossings, a partnership between Skanska and Macquarie to run the Downtown/Midtown tunnels, put up capital, but the $2.1 billion construction project also relied on more than $580 million from the state and a $440 million loan from the federal government. ERC will collect tolls that can increase annually until 2070.
“Any body can armchair and say it was a bad deal when you don’t have any money,” said McDonnell.
“I could have sat around and hoped I got a (funding) bill passed,” McDonnell said. “I tried it for a couple of years and we kept getting them killed. Or I could have said, ‘I’m going to do the best I can with the resources we had.'”
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.