PRINCE GEORGE, Va. --
Virginia transportation officials say changes to the design of the U.S. 460 toll road are "probable" in Prince George County, which has conditioned its support for the project on a new alignment of the proposed expressway's western terminus.
Program manager Morteza Farajian told representatives of local governments from the Tri-Cities region that work will not begin for two years on the ends of the $1.4 billion private-public highway project to allow time to change the design in both Prince George and Suffolk.
"We think that change to the western terminus is something probable," Farajian said during a 90-minute briefing at the Crater Regional Planning District Commission in Petersburg.
The announcement elated Prince George officials who attended the briefing. "That's the best news that Prince George could have heard today," County Administrator Percy C. Ashcraft said after the meeting.
State officials also assured local and regional officials, including a representative of Dinwiddie County, that they consider construction of a road to directly connect the new toll road with Interstate 85 and U.S. 460 west of Petersburg a vital project if money can be found to pay for it.
"I think that's critically linked to this project at some point," said Tony Kinn, director of the Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, which is managing the U.S. 460 toll project for Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The McDonnell administration has made the U.S. 460 project a top transportation priority because of its potential to boost economic development in a wide swath of the state by improving the flow of freight traffic from the Port of Virginia.
"We've always looked at this project as the building of a business corridor, not the building of a road," Kinn said.
But the project has run into opposition in Prince George because of its potential effect on homes and businesses around New Bohemia, a crossroads community where the toll road currently is designed to rejoin the existing highway east of Interstate 295.
Concerned property owners are scheduled to meet tonight in Disputanta with a Norfolk lawyer they have retained to prevent their properties from being taken or damaged by the state through use of eminent domain.
Ashcraft informed Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton this week that Prince George would support the 460 project only if the state changes the proposed realignment, preferably to connect the toll road directly with I-295 or Interstate 95 south of Petersburg.
"In our opinion, the proposed Route 460 design of the western terminus is not the most economical juncture, unnecessarily disruptive, and not efficient for the future I-85 connector," Ashcraft told Connaughton in a letter on Tuesday.
Ashcraft said Prince George had supported the governor's new economic development grant program for port-related businesses in the region, but not at the expense of local communities.
"The board recognizes the economic impact the proposed Route 460 will have on our region but still does not find it necessary to divert the Port of Virginia traffic through the hamlet of New Bohemia," he said.
State officials agree that a different design might serve everyone's interests by lowering the cost of the project and increasing toll revenues, which would benefit both the Department of Transportation and the private contractor chosen to design and build the highway.
"I don't see any reason why somebody should not be happy about enhancements to the project" at the western terminus, Farajian said.
The problem for the state is the design of the Route 460 approved four years ago under the National Environmental Policy Act. Any change to the design that would go outside the approved boundaries would require a revision to the environmental plan for the project.
The current design creates an intersection between the new and old highways that is both complex and costly, Farajian said, while a direct connection with I-295 could boost toll revenues by an estimated 10 percent.
"We will do all we can to enhance it," Farajian said after the meeting.
Under the agreement endorsed last week by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the contractor would not begin work on either terminus of the road for up to two years after the deal is made final in late December.