EDITORIAL: Keep frozen

Idea for Va. toll road should never heat up

Blog Entry January 09, 2013

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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I’m tempted to check under my snow blower.

Anything with a flashing light and multicolored wires will have to be immediately removed. The guy who does the annual maintenance to my flake tosser delivered the machine with a bit of a sneer this year. He doubles as a snowplow operator during the frosty months, and last year I dropped an ice bomb on him. I had just purchased a brand new, and more powerful, snow blower, and my prediction spilled out like salt on a highway. It was quick and had a radiating effect.

“Yeah, since I just bought this bad boy we are probably going to have a light winter,” I said.

During the winter of 2011-12, my bad boy spent most of his days in his room. I used the machine a total of two times, and on one occasion there was only about 2 in. covering the driveway. Hey, you have to throw a bad boy a bone every once in a while, don’t you?

So when the guy who had his hands on every inch of my brand new, more powerful, bad boy snow blower returned my device in tip-top running (and explosive?) condition, he mentioned my bold meteorological hypothesis and said he remembered me throughout the long, mild and dry winter of 2011-12.

“Gosh, I’m humbled I was in your thoughts all this time,” I said to myself. “Don’t forget to notice the nice, big tip I gave you. Please . . . don’t . . . hurt me.”

OK, so maybe I should not be afraid to pull the start chord this season (and, for the record, I have yet to do so), but it does not take a meteorologist to figure out the effects of a year’s worth of mostly clear skies. The Mighty Mississippi has turned flabby, unable to move massive barges carrying essential goods like coal due to low water levels. Commerce, however, cannot wait for Mother Nature to change its tune. A temporary closure of what is quickly turning into the Mighty Mud Pit means hundreds of trucks will be thrown on local highways and interstates to deliver what is needed up and down the aorta of the U.S.

Of course, any governor with a port docked on his or her agenda has been concerned about the multiaxle pavement pounders since news broke of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is expected to be complete in 2014. Virginia’s leader, Robert McConnell, has used this worry to lift the hopes of constructing a $1.5 billion, 55-mile toll road that will run parallel to U.S. 460, which is toll-free, and serve the port of Virginia out of Norfolk. This route would carry about 6,000 vehicles daily and has been turned down by investors due to the small serving it would produce on the financial end. If it were possible, some local lawmakers would take a snow blower to this set of blueprints.

I have been impressed with the way Virginia has carried itself in terms of road and bridge funding. The state has been forced to deal with a serious cut in funding and has been at the forefront of public-private partnerships in order to get needs met. So with Virginia’s vast experience in P3 maneuvering it probably would not take much to sway someone to throw a bag of money at it. The fact that investors are willing to leave the deal out in the cold speaks volumes. That and the common-sense notion of if you give motorists a free ride they will take it. With an all-expenses-paid trip waiting for them on U.S. 460, why on earth would anyone, especially commercial truckers, choose to toll their ride? Wait, I know, because with so few using the route the 55-mile trip will probably take 40 minutes. Enticing, but there still will not be enough traffic to finance the work, which might not even crack a top 50 list of road projects in demand across Virginia. So what is McConnell’s motivation here? Why do I think this is one, big snow job? R&B

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