To play the hand or fold?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 20, 2004

I have closely followed the discussion by Eric Nielsen our Director of Public Works; as he describes the issues concerning whether or not we as a City; should assume full control of the construction, repair, and maintenance of our local roads and streets from VDOT.

Under the present plan VDOT builds, maintains, and repairs all of our roads, except for the few square miles of the &uot;Old Downtown Suffolk&uot;. This unusual situation is a leftover from the past merger of Nansemond and the Old City of Suffolk. Given the numerous problems of note with VDOT, many cities in the Commonwealth have taken control of VDOT projects, for road construction and maintenance. Besides local control, there could be real financial advantages to taking over our local roads.

Under Mr. Nielsen’s proposal: the City of Suffolk would take over about one-half of the city’s roads and streets, then in about two years the rest of the city. One might ask why such a deal is in the best interests of the City (those of us who pay the bills, the taxpayers)?

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The notion is; that we will get more than the present deal allows and in addition the City will be able to offer better services like: grass mowing more often, quicker repair responses, and &uot;savings from just doing it all better since we would control it all&uot;. The way it presently works; VDOT spends so many millions of dollars to maintain and build roads in Suffolk, less the downtown area maintained by the City. This figure is about four to five million dollars less than the Commonwealth would give us under the existing &uot;Lane-Mile formula,&uot; if we did it ourselves like most cities.

Another significant issue in the mix is that VDOT controls quite a lot of what can and can’t be done near their roads.

This leads to turf battles over who can do what and when, which raises costs and slows projects.

Some prime examples of these issues include: When Isabel came ripping though last year, VDOT would not allow the City to hook-up generators for some of the most critical traffic lights, even though the City had generators and wanted to get them up and running. Also there was a turf-battle over who, when, and where repairs would be done and when and where debris would be picked up. One of the most telling example of this failed relationship, was the painful and costly repaving of South Main Street that ballooned to almost three times the original estimates, due to finger-pointing and poor planning by VDOT and city staff.

One should also note that there are skeptics of this plan, who are concerned with what might happen if another major storm came ripping through and caused several millions of dollars of damage, on the City’s watch. Even though anything is possible, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency folks), would pay the City of Suffolk, just as fast as VDOT. In addition to this, the city could most likely get the repairs done faster, better, and in an orderly fashion by coordinating with other city departments, like the Utility Department.

There are obviously logistical issues that come into the equation also, as the City ramps up services. Perhaps the most significant direct benefit is with the Utility Department, where conflicts could easily be avoided.

Presently there are several issues that add to the costs by not having roads under our roof, especially as water and sewer services are expanded.

We could also coordinate our drainage and Storm-Water Management programs more effectively if the City did roads.

Now that we understand the benefits, lets look at some of the possible drawbacks.

Perhaps the most pervasive drawback is an intangible that is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it and that is politics.

Even though VDOT has its reputation in the gutter so to speak due to their past lack-luster performance, there are very real concerns that this issue will be another example where funds are diverted &uot;Downtown&uot;, with only four votes on council. This very real problem exists as long as we allow our City Manager to steer funds by getting only four votes on council.

One method that could stop such foolery is to have a series of safeguards in place to insure that every borough gets a fair share of funds, balance over a five-year period and tied to measured lane miles. This way there is flexibility from year to year for efficiency, but also a mechanism to insure fairness for all.

Mr. Nielsen should be commended for his forward thinking and keen insights in this recommendation and I believe that this issue does merit further study and support. It looks like a very good proposal that could both resolve the VDOT/City issues and increase the level of road service. I would however advise caution, in that this thing could be done very badly if it becomes a political football. With a good plan that is balanced in its approach and policy, this may very well prove to be the right way to go. This will be described further as it unfolds.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at