Financial pressures may be influencing how the state views road construction. With several similar projects waiting in the wings, the state has a vested interest in seeing more traffic on 895 to pay back the bonds, some say.
It’s a perfect example of Virginia’s profit-driven Public Private Transportation Act working to create traffic instead of alleviating it, says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville. Indeed, in a preliminary report on the 895 interchange prepared by the Virginia Department of Transportation, one of the reasons listed for recommending approval: “Traffic generated by this development will generate new toll revenue in support of this toll road.”
Building and extending roads to create traffic to pay investors, says Pollard, is the antithesis of good planning and the spark plug for sprawl.
“It’s a problem throughout the state,” he says. “This proposal just highlights the need to get a better policy, so that we don’t keep putting money into roadways and keep filling them up with traffic.”
The developer for the project, Blacksburg-based HHHunt, envisions turning the 1,184-acre Wilton Farm in eastern Henrico County into a residential community that includes 2,500-3,000 homes, a shopping center, office buildings and even a marina, according to plans submitted to the state highway department.
The development would have a significant impact on 895. Plans show the development alone would generate 46,000 daily vehicle trips on the road by 2016, according to a preliminary engineering study, more than three times current traffic on the parkway. An official traffic impact study hasn’t been conducted, however.
And that’s precisely the problem, says Pollard, who wrote a letter to VDOT opposing the interchange. The developer hasn’t submitted any land-use plans to Henrico. And no rezoning requests, traffic or environmental impact studies have been filed, making it impossible to truly know the impact of the proposed interchange.
Gary T. Johnson, an urban studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in transportation issues, says the approach shows a critical disconnect between state and local governments.
“There is inadequate coordination between land use and transportation plans,” he says. “Transportation is a tool to achieve our land-use objectives. [Planning officials need] to see whether it’s in the locality’s comprehensive plan and see whether or not it makes sense.”
Pollard concurs. “I think there are serious flaws in this approach,” he says. “It’s jumping out of line in the overall planning.”
The state wouldn’t usually recommend approval until after the locality receives site plans and has an opportunity to weigh in, says Robbie Prezioso, resident engineer for VDOT in Sandston who is handling the case. Typically, VDOT considers approval of things like new interchanges after land developers apply to have property rezoned. The Wilton Farm property, however, was different.
“They were talking about a very, very large development and without access to 895, the county had very large concerns about traffic coming out on Route 5,” Prezioso says. For the project to move forward, it was clear that access to 895 would be needed, and that’s why VDOT recommended approving the interchange first.
John Marlles, director of planning for Henrico, says the developer solicited support from his office, but hasn’t submitted any plans. And, therefore, he couldn’t say for sure if the plans meshed with Henrico’s comprehensive plan. “There has been some effort to get support for this at the planning office,” he says. “But we haven’t started to look at it because we haven’t seen a plan. I don’t know enough to be able to react.”
County Manager Virgil R. Hazelett sent a letter to VDOT indicating the county supported the interchange. The county received some information about the development from Glawson Investments, the owner of the Wilton Farm property, and developer HHHunt, which has the property under contract, he wrote. “The proposed development would enhance eastern Henrico County but would have a significant impact on our existing roadway system,” Hazelett says in the letter, dated March 15.
It seemed to be enough to clear the first big hurdle. With the VDOT staff recommendation and the support of the county manager, the Commonwealth Transportation Board was set to vote on the matter at its April 15 meeting in Norfolk. But a few days before the meeting, VDOT pulled the item off the agenda.
“We’d gotten some feedback from the ads that were in the paper,” Prezioso says. “There were some environmental concerns about that site. And we don’t have any control over that.” The resolution already had a number of contingencies, Prezioso says, and adding more seemed too much. So VDOT has now decided to wait until after the county has taken a closer look at the project.
A representative for the developer didn’t return phone calls by press time. But Susan Streaker, an agent for the property’s landowner, William Glawson of Macon, Ga., says Henrico and state officials advised her boss and the developer get approval from VDOT first. So that’s what they did. “We went through the process the way we were told to,” she says.
Malcolm T. Kerley, chief engineer for program development at VDOT, says financial pressures didn’t influence the process. While it certainly came up as staff looked over the proposal, he says the state would never approve a new extension or interchange simply to beef up toll revenues.
“It was discussed, but it was not a consideration,” Kerley says. “Even if that [interchange] break was granted, the build-out would be 2016. There would be no immediate plus or minus to” traffic counts and toll revenue.
But there’s no denying the bond issue looms large over 895. New York-based Fitch Ratings has tagged the Pocahontas bond issue with its lowest negative rating, and warns more than $350 million in bonds may default without restructuring the debt.
And that bodes poorly for the state. If anything, the 895 interchange may be a taste of things to come, says Pollard, as the state continues to approve more and more privately funded road projects in the future. The state holds no responsibility legally or morally to help pay back the 895 bonds. But in order to appease investors in the future, that may have to change if traffic doesn’t improve considerably, and the bonds have to be refinanced. Private road construction may wind up costing taxpayers millions more than promised years ago.
“This stuff gets over our heads pretty quickly,” Pollard says. S
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