Decision on road takeover looms

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

Will Suffolk’s proposal to assume control of more than 1,480 miles of state-maintained roads hit a dead end this week?

Or will the Suffolk City Council pave a new road in local history and relinquish its role as Virginia’s only city not responsible for maintaining its own roads?

The council is expected to vote on the city’s controversial proposal to take over roads now maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation at its meeting Wednesday.

Email newsletter signup

Even council members seem unsure how the vote – tabled for 30 days last month to give new Councilman Joseph Barlow an opportunity to study the issue – will go.

&uot;I hope we reach a decision on the roads this time,&uot; said Mayor Bobby Ralph, who supports the takeover. &uot;I sense there is support on council to do it.

&uot;I think the majority of council members realize the importance of taking over our roads.&uot;

If council opposes the proposal, it will be the end of the issue, at least for the next couple of years, he added.

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. To keep up the demands of roadway infrastructure, the city needs the additional funding that the urban designation would bring, said Eric Nielson, the city’s public works director.

Under the current formula, the city would get $15 million annually in state maintenance funds to do the job, nearly three times what VDOT is allocated for the same work.

&uot;I think supporting it is the right thing to do,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;I think we’re already late doing it.

&uot;We are using an antiquated formula for rural funding. We have already left millions of dollars out there for other localities that we could have had…using the urban formula.&uot;

Councilman Curtis Milteer said he will vote for the road takeover under one condition – that a 14-member, council-appointed citizen advisory board be established to help with fund disbursement.

&uot;If my vote means anything to them, we are going to have to put some means in place to involve the public,&uot; said Milteer. He represents the Whaleyville district, where people opposing the proposal turned out en masse at public meetings last year.

Nonetheless, Milteer said he thinks Suffolk should take charge of its own road system.

&uot;It’s time for Suffolk to move forward and be comparable to other cities,&uot; he said. &uot;Appropriating more money for road maintenance is the only way that is going to happen.

&uot;To bring Suffolk to the level it should be, there will have to be a change in the funding formula being used.&uot;

Councilman Calvin Jones declined to say how he would vote Wednesday.

But if the proposal is adopted, Jones said he believes provisions should be put in place to show how the funding is distributed.

&uot;I envision a committee…to establish policies…that make the program fair and equitable to everybody,&uot; he said. He recommended the city involve people with technical expertise as well as citizens.

He also recommended the city have a separate account for state road maintenance money rather that putting it directly into the city’s general fund.

Both Barlow and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett say they are still talking with constituents and haven’t decided whether they will support the takeover.

&uot;I’m still receiving calls about it,&uot; Bennett said. &uot;People seem to have lot of mixed feelings…but more callers are in opposition.&uot;

Bennett said he is awaiting more detail on the project, including startup costs, anticipated equipment expenses and housing of equipment.

He expects to be ready to vote by Wednesday, assuming council receives the requested information.

&uot;If all the questions my people are asking me are answered, I will be in a position to give an honest vote,&uot; he said.

Barlow said he will be ready to make a decision by Wednesday.

&uot;For the past 30 days, I’ve been meeting with people to find out how they feel and, more importantly, why they feel the way they do,&uot; Barlow said. &uot;I see both viewpoints and am gradually forming my opinion.&uot;

Councilwoman Linda T. Johnson and Councilman Charles F. Brown could not be reached for comments. But in recent past interviews, Johnson has opposed the measure while Brown has favored it.

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

&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;

Brown, at the same time, said taking over the roads made sense from a mathematical perspective.

&uot;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;