I attended a meeting in my hometown of Free Union on Friday night (disclosure: it was organized by my mother) held to give the Virginia Department of Transportation a chance to justify their interest in shutting down the road maintenance facility that has been there for decades, serving most of the areas within about a 20 minute drive of Free Union, including White Hall, Crozet, and Earlysville. The plan is to have the work done — including snow and ice clearing — by facilities in Boyd Tavern, Yancey Mills and Stanardsville. Which is totally crazy — it’ll take them ages to get to Free Union. VDOT had previously held a meeting about this…in Culpeper, on a Friday night, at 5pm. (With the plans “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”) Great for the unemployed, not so good for us mortals.
Well, it was a hell of a meeting. A couple of hundred people showed up, packed into the little church basement where my tiny Boy Scout troop used to meet, and they brought torches and pitchforks, metaphorically speaking. VDOT was given 25 minutes to present their side, and a few folks from Free Union were given 15 minutes for their side, and then there was a planned Q&A period. (VDOT was given more time because they’d asked for it beforehand.) After 40 minutes they were still yammering on about absolutely nothing with hardly a mention of Free Union or even Albemarle County — it was like they were trying to run down the clock. Eventually they were cut off, and the advocates for Free Union said their piece. Then came the Q&A period, during which, bizarrely, the VDOT officials declared that they would not be answering any questions.
The recurring question — I asked it, too — was why VDOT will not simply provide us with their research that demonstrates that the service will remain at the same level that it is now. It should be very simple for them: just give us the maps or the charts or the graphs or whatever that came of their research. They had refused to do so, but one of the VDOT representatives finally said that he would be happy to provide all of the data that they have, and that he would send it on Monday. We’ll see.
There were a couple of revealing moments. The first was when one representative declared of this proposed change to road maintenance, against all logic: “This is not a science. This is not a science. It is an art.” Of course it’s a science. If they’re treating this as an art, that’s the problem right there. The second was when the same fellow admitted, in his one and only moment of candor, that the quality of service would decline.
The only impressive bit was when one of the VDOT representatives — the lone woman — sought to soothe the crowd at the end, and did so rather well. She explained the truth of the matter: roads are hugely, hugely underfunded in Virginia. VDOT hasn’t had an increase in funding in over twenty years, but the cost of asphalt has increased by a third in the past couple of years alone. So unless we’re willing to pay more for our roads, the quality of service will keep getting worse. Building roads is like having babies: yeah, there’s an up-front cost, but it’s the years of maintenance that’ll get you. The difference is that babies generally grow up and move out of the house. Did you ever hear of a road being closed down for lack of use? Of course not — they only get wider and more used over time, and that costs money. In fact, the cost of maintenance alone will use up the entirety of the state’s road budget come 2018 — no more road construction. But we’re not going to stop construction, so maintenance will start to suffer, and that begins now, in Free Union.
But this isn’t just Free Union — VDOT is doing this all over the state. They’re reducing the number of maintenance facilities in order to save money and, by their own admission, service will get worse. The only way that can be prevented is by our representatives getting the nerve to raise the money to pay for roads, which is one of the most basic services that government needs to provide. Del. David Toscano and Sen. Creigh Deeds have a solid track record there: it’s Del. Rob Bell, Del. Bill Janis, Del. Watkins Abbitt and Sen. Emmett Hanger who have got to muster up a little courage to do what needs doing. They like to go before the voters and brag that they’ve never voted for a tax increase, but when the plows don’t come, we’ll all remember that it’s their fault. And we citizens of Albemarle have got to talk to our representatives and tell them that we’re willing to pay to have our roads cleared, our ditches dug and our streets regraveled. Oh, and VDOT plans to make their decision about this plan on December 15, so you’d better get moving if you want to stop it.
Jeremy Borden had an article about the event in yesterday’s Progress, and I understand that the paper has an editorial about it today.
I recorded the whole thing on my little memo recorder, mostly so I could have some good notes, but the audio turned out to be good enough to share. Sean Tubbs has podcast the audio on Charlottesville Podcasting Network. The sound quality isn’t great; particularly embarrassing are the bits where you can hear me talking quietly to the folks sitting on either side of me. But you’ll hear some excellent points being made by many audience members about how illogical that this proposal is and how important that it is that we maintain the current level of service.