The fork of the road

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 17, 2005

Suffolk’s proposal to assume more than 1,480 miles of state-maintained roads looks great on paper.

The city would get $15 million annually in state funds to do the job, nearly three times what the Virginia Department of Transportation spends for the same work.

Without the state’s red tape, work likely would get done faster. The city wouldn’t have to get the state’s approval to install a stoplight or reduce a speed limit, as it does now.

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After months of discussion with city and VDOT officials, the Suffolk City Council is gearing up to make what most council members agree is the most important decision of their respective terms.

Next month, the council is expected to decide whether Suffolk will lose its status as the state’s only city that isn’t responsible for all of its own roads.

Since the city’s 1974 merger with Nansemond City, VDOT has maintained all but the 85 miles of roads that were in the original city limits. The deal, a special arrangement coordinated by the late Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. of Chuckatuck, requires that the state maintain the roads to rural-rather than urban-standards.

In the years since the merger, Suffolk has become one of the state’s fastest growing cities. As fields have given way to subdivisions, rural roads to four-lane highways, the city needs additional funding that the urban designation would bring, said Eric Nielson, the city’s public works director.

&uot;We can do this,&uot; he said. &uot;We have the professional expertise to do this.&uot;

By hiring an additional 80 people – many of whom would be displaced VDOT workers – and buying more equipment, the city would easily be able to provide road service that is equal – if not superior – to that provided by VDOT, Nielson said.

&uot;This is not an indictment of VDOT,&uot; said City Manager R. Steven Herbert. &uot;The city has benefited from the arrangement.

&uot;It was the right thing to do at the right time.&uot;

But times have changed, Suffolk is growing up.

Having domain over the city’s roadways is vital to Suffolk’s future, said Mayor Bobby L. Ralph.

&uot;It’s time to take a serious look at things,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;We are trying to

operate a city with first-class roads using an antiquated system.

&uot;It makes sense that we should move the city forward.&uot;

Councilman Charles F. Brown also supports the city’s proposal to take over the roads.

&uot;When you look at it from a mathematical

perspective, the city can do a much better job…and they will be able to do more with the same amount of money,&uot; he said. &uot;The pluses are definitely in favor of the city taking over.&uot;

Although VDOT requested an answer early this year, some council members say they would like to delay the vote for a bit longer.

&uot;When I left the retreat, (where the plan was first shared with council), I thought it was a no-brainer,&uot; said Councilwoman Linda T. Johnson. &uot;It looks like win-win deal and that we’re going to get all this money.

&uot;But the more I listen and think it through, the more questions I have. I don’t think we have all the answers we need just yet.

&uot;I think we are pushing it …and I’m very uncomfortable with that time frame,&uot; she continued. &uot;This is probably the biggest decision we will ever make and it is a decision we won’t be able to take back.&uot;

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett agreed, saying he doesn’t believe council members should rush with their decision.

Councilman Curtis Milteer, an avid supporter at last fall’s retreat, says he intends to ask for additional time for study the issue.

&uot;Additional time would be highly recommended,&uot; Milteer said. &uot;I think we need analyze the issue a little further.

&uot;A large segment of the population in Whaleyville is still not satisfied with the proposal,&uot; he said. &uot;And I have some questions about whether there will be equal disbursements.

&uot;I’m not quite satisfied that we have a way of making sure that all communities will be served.&uot;

Councilman Calvin Jones, who represents Holland, has similar concerns.

&uot;One of my biggest concerns is how we would create equity throughout the boroughs with the administering of the road maintenance funds,&uot; said Jones. &uot;At this point, we haven’t been presented with a point that addresses that issue.

&uot;I want to see that before I will support this plan,&uot; he said. &uot;I’m interested in seeing every detail.

&uot;We have to be very cautious…and use all the information available…to make this decision.&uot;