By Peter Galuszka
Steamy and sticky in the late-summer humidity, U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk has the milieu of the Deep South with its rusting peanut processing plants, red brick small towns and the straight-as-an-arrow mainline of the Norfolk Southern slicing through occasional roads with warning lights at the sides.
These days, curious little roadside signs are popping up. They urge “No Tolls on I-95″ not too far from billboards for Wakefield’s landmark “Virginia Diner” touting itself as a “legend in a nutshell” and pushing the best fried chicken around.
The small signs are the political part of the landscape and when they appear, watch out! When the Navy tried to put an “Outlying Landing Field” for super-loud Super Hornet F-18 jet fighters to practice carrier landings in local piney woods at night, similarly-sized signs screaming “No OLF” popped up. The Navy got beached. Ditto when the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative tried to stick a huge coal-fired generating station in Surry County. The signs read: “No Coal Plant.” The project has been cancelled.
The message is that when the signs sprout, whoever is the target is in a heap of trouble, boy. That’s because the sign placers usually win. In this case, the losers will be Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Sean Connaughton, his Cardinal Richelieu of state transportation. Both want to generate $30 million to $40 million a year for highway maintenance shortfalls by putting tolls near Emporia on Interstate 95, the only real north-south artery in the area that connects with U.S. 460.
Like so many, these men are the omnipresent right-wing politicians of today who pledge fiscal conservatism. But instead of doing it by across-the-board cuts that affect all, they selectively push the costs along to someone else and call it a cut. In this case, it would be the people who tend to use I-95 in the very southern part of the state. As one commenter said in The Virginian-Pilot Website, the tolls would target “yankees and snowbirds” who take I-95 to see their grandkids or visit Disney World. The problem is, the tolls also affect people who are among the poorest in the state.
Even fellow Republican George Allen, candidate for U.S. Senate, has split with McDonnell on the toll issue. Allen says he supports McDonnell’s wonderful transportation ideas. He adds: “However, I do not support the proposal to install tolls on the southern stretch of I-95. Southern Virginia already faces significant economic challenges and these tolls could disadvantage job-creating businesses in the region.”
Virginia is chock-a-block with idealists and propagandists who would stick a user fee or a toll in front of every Virginian during every part of his or her day. They will do anything to cut a budget and let the “free market” determine all and promote business. Of course, we won’t go into the fact that various truckers trade groups — a distinct business — are fighting the I-95 tools tooth and nail.
But what to the conservative policy wonks care? They probably don’t drive the roads anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s consider that privately-owned toll roads probably aren’t the way to go, either.
In Northern Virginia, the limited access Greenway, owned by the Macquarie Group of Australia, is drawing unusual fire for charging $5.50 at peak times even though the road isn’t that long.
West Virginia resident Angela Petry, a musician, has struck back with her Greenway protest song. Titled “Highway robbery,”the song states:
“Fourteen miles and it’s nice and smooth
From Leesburg to Dulles you can really move
Drive every day but you cry at night
Cause the price of tolls is out of sight.”
I think it’s time to get a similar song going for I-95. U.S. 460 would be great, too, because McDonnell and his transportation Politburo have big plans for replacing U.S. 460 bypassing local icons such as “The Virgina Diner.” Various city governments, including those in Norfolk, hate the idea.
If you have song ideas, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim will love you for it.