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Virginia taxpayers could pay $500M for road that may not be built

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell's aggressive push to build a toll road parallel to U.S. 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg may wind up costing taxpayers between $400 million to $500 million -- with no road to show for it.

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne told perturbed lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that while he's confident some form of the project will ultimately be built, there's a slight chance it won't. In that case, Layne said, the public could be on the hook for up to $500 million.

"Taxpayers have been shaken down on this thing," said Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William.

"Taxpayers have been shaken down on this thing"

- Delegate Scott Lingamfelter

The state and private bondholders have already spent about $282 million on the project, with no construction having yet started.

The Army Corps of Engineers has not issued a permit for the $1.4 billion, 55-mile highway because of concerns over its environmental impact on hundreds of acres of wetland.

Layne said if the project is cancelled, taxpayers could have to pay around $100 million more in penalties and could also be required to repay bondholders more than $100 million.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe stopped work on the project in March rather than continue to pay private contractor U.S. 460 Mobility Partners while the state considers alternate routes or improvements to the existing road that would have less of an impact on the area's wetlands. U.S. 460 Mobility Partners is a joint venture between Ferrovial Agromßn of Spain and American Infrastructure, whose corporate headquarters is in Pennsylvania.

The project was initially intended to be a public-private partnership with substantial private investment with corresponding assumption of risk, Layne said. When the state sought offers in 2006, private companies said the road would need a large public subsidy. An independent review board came to a similar conclusion in 2010.

Layne said the McDonnell administration made the project its top transportation priority and went to "extraordinary" efforts to push it forward using mostly public funds after it became clear there was no "business case" for private interests to pay for a lightly traveled road. McDonnell, who was indicted on federal corruption charges unrelated to the road in January, had advocated for the road since his days as a state delegate more than a decade ago.

To help fund the project, the Virginia Port Authority committed $250 million to the project. Shortly before this commitment was made, McDonnell replaced 10 members of the authority's 13 member board of commissioners.

On Wednesday, lawmakers said the 460 project has raised several concerns about how the state finances and builds roads.

"Who was looking out for the public during this whole process?" said. Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

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