ESSAY- Snow job: Talking truth to VDOT power

It was that sick, twisty feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, the feeling that says, I totally screwed up. That's how I felt on December 1 as I flipped on the light in the basement of the Free Union Baptist Church.

I was setting up for a meeting. Some neighbors and I had arranged for the higher-ups from the Virginia Department of Transportation to come here and explain why they wanted to close the Free Union VDOT maintenance facility and remove our snowplows, salt, and workers.

We knew it was about saving money– we also knew that VDOT's interest in saving money conflicted with our need for safe roads.

Once they agreed to the meeting, we had one week to spread the word. We put up posters and emailed everyone we could think of in this district.

Not one person responded to say, "I'll be there." Nevertheless, I held out hope that we'd get a respectable turnout. After all, it was a decision that would affect people beyond this hamlet, since our VDOT guys are responsible for access to the airport, to ten schools, plus a USPS processing and distribution center. 

But tonight, the forecast called for torrential rain. Who'd come out in a downpour? I was a fool to think that people cared about this as much as I did.

These were the thoughts bouncing around in my head as I arrived at the dark church and felt around for the light switch. 

I'd brought a bunch of handouts for the meeting– copies of the agenda. Having felt insanely optimistic, I'd made 200 copies. As I placed them on the table with the "Hello My Name Is" stickers, I was feeling pretty stupid. What made me think anyone else gives a hoot about how fast our roads are plowed after a snowstorm? 

Two of my neighbors arrived– Joanne and Dick Hayden. They were the ones who'd insisted that the VDOT bosses come to this meeting. As I filled the 50-cup coffee urn and emptied five packages of chocolate-covered graham crackers onto paper plates, I didn't know whether to thank them or blame them for getting us into this potentially embarrassing mess.

As the Department of Transportation bosses arrived and filed down the stairs– all seven of them– I wondered whether we'd even have enough locals to outnumber the VDOT contingent.

Then, half an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, something wonderful happened. 

People began to pour down the stairs. In a matter of minutes, all 200 chairs were taken. When standing room was gone, people piled up on the stairway. Channel 29 had arrived and set up a camera, and the Daily Progress reporter was scribbling away, interviewing people. The hubbub in the room grew louder. The place was packed, and no one was happy. 

No one, that is, except me. I was delighted– astonished at what the Internet, a church basement, and seething public outrage can produce. 

The place was getting warm, and the VDOT folks at the long table up front were facing a room full of angry people. The air was thick with outrage, with murmurs of "What are they thinking?" and "Don't they know?" arising from the crowd.

Someone opened the double doors to the outside behind the VDOT table, and a gust blew dry leaves across the floor and around our feet. Miraculously, not only had the torrential rain not appeared, but the sky was cloudless, with a crisp moon high overhead.

After what seemed like an intentionally long and irrelevant 45-minute PowerPoint presentation by VDOT (I think they were hoping people would get bored and leave), not a soul had left the room. Even the people on the stairway hadn't budged.

Then it was our turn. Hand after hand shot up, and VDOT heard repeatedly that sending plows to Free Union during a snowstorm from someplace 45 minutes away (in good weather) was not the best way to keep the roads open and safe. Hauling sand and salt from Stanardsville, then turning around to drive back for another load would be a poor use of time, equipment, and gasoline. 

Someone stood up and pointed out an important fact about the Advance Mills bridge. It's what ultimately led to VDOT changing their collective mind about this closure, and it's a fact known by everybody who lives here, including the local guys who work at the Free Union VDOT depot. 

The bosses at the Culpeper and Richmond VDOT offices would have known this, too, had they sought the advice of their own local employees. 

A key element of VDOT's plan to downsize maintenance operations in Free Union involved a facility in Stanardsville taking responsibility for a big chunk of our district. For this plan to work, the heavy equipment from Stanardsville– the snowplows and graders– would have to come here by way of SR 743, crossing the Advance Mills bridge.

But that bridge is so flimsy, with its three-ton weight limit, that it can barely accommodate a pickup truck. You'd think the big shots at the Virginia Department of Transportation would have known that, or found out about it while researching this downsizing plan. Nuh-uh. 

When the meeting was over, it was clear to all of us non-VDOT people that closing this facility would be lunacy. We'd be snowed in for days after a storm, and the airport and schools would be closed. Fire and rescue equipment would get stuck. Medical personnel from UVa Hospital and Martha Jefferson wouldn't be able to get to work.

After everyone left, and we'd swept the leaves out and put away all those folding chairs, I reached to switch off the light and wondered whether the VDOT big shots now had that sick, twisty feeling at the pit of their stomachs– just thinking about that three-ton-limit bridge in Advance Mills– as they made the long drive home. 



Let's not forget - before we get to hard on VDOT.

VDOT's efforts to consolidate and close these local opertations was a direct result of a General Assemebly mandate.

I believe that often the General Assembly members and government employees forget that they are employed by the people to serve the people not the other way around.

As far as down-sizing VDOT based on a General Assembly mandate, follow the money trail. Contractors donate large sums of money to politicians. Politicians at every level are influenced by money. When the work still must be completed, the contractors stand to gain much more than any contributions that were made.

Next the General Assembly may pass mandates that law enforcement duties or other basic needs of society be filled by private contractors. Do you think that Wackenhut would like some of the Virginia State Police budget?

A government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Sound familiar?

So when will the general public ever understand the truth behind the truth. So far, in looking at all the complaints about VDOT this and VDOT that, I begin to think "is the general public really THAT clueless about decisions being made that affect the traveling public?" The decisions to consolidate facilities and duties within VDOT is being forced by legislation and the General Assembly, not the VDOT high brass. All the VDOT management is doing is following mandates forced on them by lawmakers that don't even know that Advance Mills Bridge even exists, let alone know that the bridge is too fragile for VDOT trucks. Give em (VDOT) a break!!!! If you want to whine and complain, go to the web and look at your legislature's bills on the table and see where the REAL problems lay.

Don;t blame me is telling the whole truth behind all of this. The public is wanting smaller government is what is being said. Okay you asked for it now you've got it. One thing everyone needs to remember, DMV, remember what happened when they closed and consolidated to save the State money? Then it ended up costing the State more to reopen and refurnish all the DMV's they closed. We all seem to forget when it comes time to vote everything that happened during the last Governmental Administration was in office. Next time before you vote take a few minutes to consider what has happened, not what they are saying to get elected, they say what you want to hear. Think, think, think about the past administration before you cast that vote, PLEASE.

To "Don't blame me" -- I understand "the truth behind the truth". When I found out that the closing of our Free Union VDOT depot was imminent, the only way to keep it open was to do something immediately. That something was a public meeting to raise awareness about this particular facility. Getting the Virginia legislature to swing their votes in the other direction (away from lining the pockets of private contractors and toward serving the populace who sent them to Richmond) would take way, way longer and in the meantime, lives could be lost due to poor snow and ice removal. While I support full funding of VDOT, it seemed most effective to turn my attention to the "brush fire" in front of me. I will continue to let my legislators know (directly, and by way of the ballot box) that outsourcing such public services as infrastructure maintenance and public safety is a bad idea. (And I wouldn't expect the legislature to know about our fragile bridge. I do expect our regional VDOT staff in Culpeper to find out about any weaknesses in whatever plan they hope to implement. The bridge is, after all, VDOT's direct responsibility. Had they bothered to ask anyone at the Free Union VDOT, they would have known about it, too.)