SPSA, from the bus window

Published 10:34 pm Friday, July 20, 2012

Like a patient with an incurable and terminal disease, the Southeastern Public Service Authority marks the passing days before its demise with a mixture of resignation, expectation, denial and bargaining. With the 2018 contractual date of self destruction having been set at the regional waste authority’s conception, there has always been an easily-ignored certainty about the end of the organization that was one of the region’s first and most visible forays into regionalism.

SPSA was supposed to provide the perfect example of how a regional approach to the needs of the various cities and counties comprising Greater Hampton Roads would be better met through cooperation between those municipalities, rather than by their individual efforts. Sometimes the concept has proved successful; as often, it has failed.

If there’s one apparently determinative factor in that success or lack thereof, it would seem to be money. When there were no great worries about financing and when the cost of waste disposal for SPSA’s members was low, there were hardly any disagreements, and things moved merrily along. But when the organization’s financial mess was exposed to the light of day and the cost of dumping trash at the regional landfill in Suffolk began to soar, suddenly there was strife among the authority’s municipal members.

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That’s when, for example, members began to question the contractual clause giving Suffolk the right to dispose of its garbage for free in exchange for hosting the landfill. Even as those members begin to consider what should happen when the authority’s sunset clause goes into effect, they still argue over the “deal” they now believe Suffolk to have gotten.

In the end, it’s not so surprising that money came between SPSA’s members, even if they are municipal governments. Money comes between those governments all the time. Witness the demise of Hampton Roads Transit’s MAX bus routes into Suffolk, which ferried people to and from Portsmouth and Chesapeake along what were theoretically, at least, express routes. The last of those routes was shut down at the beginning of the month because the low ridership to and from Suffolk didn’t warrant the cost of maintaining the routes.

The point is not to argue that HRT should have kept unproductive routes, requiring taxpayers in Norfolk to subsidize the couple of dozen Suffolk riders. The transit authority’s decision was the right one, one that weighed costs and benefits and ultimately did what was appropriate for taxpayers and for the vast majority of the system’s riders.

But the lesson of Suffolk’s involvement with — and ultimate break from — Hampton Roads Transit should give some perspective on the argument about SPSA’s final days and any efforts to prolong its life artificially or to resurrect it in the wake of its scheduled demise in 2018. Already, committees and consultants are studying the area’s options in that regard.

Remembering the lessons of HRT, Suffolk officials caught up in these discussions should recall that those seeking to save SPSA in the name of regionalism have displayed little real interest in sharing burdens. Their efforts always will be on their own municipalities’ behalf. Because of that, SPSA will always suffer the affliction of self absorption amongst its members, the very antithesis of a regional mindset.

Faced to choose whether to devote precious resources to keeping such an afflicted patient alive, one day Suffolk may well have to choose to pull the plug.