Concerns among environmental groups that a proposed 55-mile stretch of highway across the southeast corner of Virginia would impact more wetlands than originally estimated appear to be coming true.
Recent permit applications submitted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and its contractor show the proposed U.S. Route 460 replacement would impact nearly 480 acres of wetlands. If approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, it would be the largest loss of wetlands from a Virginia transportation project ever allowed under the Clean Water Act.
“Based on the information we have seen, I don’t see how the Corps could possibly grant this permit under the law,” Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Projects in the state that would have impacted far fewer acres of wetlands have been halted in the past because of their environmental impact. The Federal Highway Administration rejected the 21-mile Southeastern Parkway project that would have connected Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in 2010 because it would have consumed 170 acres of wetlands.
The Corps commented on that project in 2005 that the Parkway “would result in the direct loss of far more wetlands than any roadway project constructed in Virginia in modern times.”
Outside of road projects, the King William Reservoir would have destroyed about 430 acres of wetlands to create a man-made lake had it not been denied a Corps permit in 2009.
Pollard, who has been following the U.S. 460 project since 2005, said the Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have also expressed “consistent concern” for almost a decade about the impact the project would have on the surrounding environment.
That was before the recent supplement to the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which originally estimated wetland losses of 129 acres, less than one-third of what’s now being estimated.
“This new data makes clear the need for a comprehensive reconsideration of alternatives and their impacts,” Pollard said in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration last week.
VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said the number of wetland acres impacted grew in part because the definition of what is considered a wetland has been expanded since 2008, when the original statement was completed.
She said the road, which would run from Petersburg to Suffolk, was not a tolled highway when it originally received federal approval, a change that requires additional lanes in some areas.
Despite the proposed changes which might impact the project’s future approval, VDOT is moving ahead with work on U.S. 460. Rollison said the contractor will continue design work on the road to determine its exact footprint.
She pointed out that the amount of wetlands impacted will likely decrease as crews narrow down the footprint of the actual road.
Pollard is concerned that crews could begin construction on portions of the road that do not require additional permits from the Corps or impact wetlands. He said such work would not only unnecessarily impact the landscape should the project be discontinued, but also that it would “effectively predetermine the outcome of these (environmental) reviews” in favor of the $1.4 billion project.
SELC’s letter to the Federal Highway Administration asks that it call for a halt to final design, right-of-way acquisition and planned construction activities on the road until the permit approval process is complete, saying that failing to do so could prejudice the evaluation of alternatives.
VDOT already has spent about $192 million on design and other work related to the project, Rollison said.
The Corps is not expected to rule on the wetlands permit for this project until the spring. Officials from the Corps’ Norfolk District have warned VDOT that, should it begin construction on other sections of the road before then, it is taking a risk.
Rollison said building the new route has been a state priority for more than a decade, and is part of an effort to improve hurricane evacuation routes in the area and alleviate traffic on Interstate 64.
It’s also part of a plan to accommodate increased truck traffic from the Hampton Roads port that could accompany an expansion of the Panama Canal, among other reasons.
“The new highway would be a four-lane highway, two lanes in each direction with no stops,” Rollison said. “It would look like an interstate highway and be efficient like one.”
Pollard and SELC have pushed for an alternative to this new tolled highway — expanding the existing U.S. 460 to five lanes. He said SELC recognizes the need to accommodate growth along the route but thinks that can be done by improving the existing roadway.
The Corps and EPA have indicated in comments on previous documents that such an expansion of the existing road may be the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” which is a criteria for the Corps to issue a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
Rollison, though, said that a five-lane expansion was no longer sufficient. VDOT recently revised its plan for the alternative expansion of the existing road to include eight lanes and a partially tolled road, which would have a greater environmental — and financial — impact than a new road.
Pollard said he thinks change in plans for the existing road was to make the new U.S. 460 project look more attractive by comparison.
“I have to say I’m very skeptical about this,” he said. “All the numbers I’ve seen suggest that, certainly, five lanes would be adequate.”
U.S. 460 is not the only road project in Virginia receiving intense scrutiny from environmental groups. SELC and the Charlottesville-based Piedmont Environmental Council have actively opposed a series of Northern Virginia Outer Beltway Projects around Washington, DC, that they say would unnecessarily develop rural and open-space areas of Virginia’s Piedmont region.
SELC is also advocating alternatives to a proposed U.S. Route 29 Bypass project through Charlottesville that would impact some impaired streams. Pollard said these projects and a couple others in the state represent “an enormous increase of imperious surfaces,” resulting in additional stormwater pollution runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.
Of the six states SELC works in, Pollard said Virginia, along with North Carolina, are currently pursuing the largest number of “destructive highway” projects.
“If you add up the impact of those (projects) on the front burner, Virginia has more than any of our other states,” he said.