News | October 3, 2016

Corps issues permit for wasteful, destructive highway project in Virginia’s Tidewater

Despite strong opposition from environmental groups and the localities that would be most affected, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued a Clean Water Act permit authorizing the destruction of wetlands for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) new Route 460 project between Zuni and Suffolk in Southeastern Virginia.

VDOT previously scrapped its proposal to build a new 55-mile highway parallel to the lightly traveled Route 460 due to its high cost and severe wetlands impacts. Now VDOT has a permit from the Corps to proceed with a new proposal for Route 460, even though it has many of the same problems.

VDOT’s latest proposal includes building 12 miles of new highway bypasses through rural lands and across numerous wetlands and streams near the communities of Windsor and Suffolk. Its nearly 40 acres of wetlands impacts (2.5 acres per mile) makes this one of the most destructive projects the Corps of Engineers has ever permitted in Virginia. It also would harm farmland and communities and cost up to $450 million to build—despite agencies’ repeated findings that traffic congestion is virtually non-existent along this corridor.

“We are deeply disappointed that the McAuliffe Administration pursued this unnecessary and destructive proposal, and that the Corps of Engineers has issued this permit,” said Senior Attorney Trip Pollard. “The limited benefits it would provide clearly do not justify the considerable impacts it would have on Route 460’s communities and environment, or its significant cost to Virginia taxpayers.”

SELC has long argued that the needs of this corridor—such as improving safety and alleviating flooding issues—can be effectively addressed through far less costly, and far less damaging, upgrades of the existing highway. This includes an alternative proposed in a report by traffic engineer Walter Kulash that SELC submitted last winter.

“To issue a permit, the Clean Water Act requires the Corps to find that the proposal is the ‘least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,’ and that its construction would be in the ‘public interest,’” said Senior Attorney Trip Pollard. “This project fails on both accounts.”

Despite receiving a permit from the Corps, there are still a number of steps remaining before VDOT can move forward with the project, including evaluation under the state’s new Smart Scale system used to prioritize projects for funding.

“It’s hard to imagine this project scoring well enough under Smart Scale to warrant funding given its hefty price tag, the environmental damage it would cause, and the limited traffic relief it offers,” Pollard said. “The region and the state have far greater needs than this boondoggle.”