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.