Thursday, August 9, 2012

The bridge to nowhere and other delights

During a workshop with the Virginia Department of Transportation before their August 7 meeting Goochland supervisors took a hard look at road projects. They also expressed interest in removing a bridge in western Goochland whose light use does not justify its upkeep.

The Elk Island Bridge on State Route 608, which connects the mainland with the approximately 1500 acre unoccupied Elk Island, is maintained by VDOT. Fair market value of land on the island is just over $3.25 million. (The chart of land values, included in Part A of the August 7 board packet, provides an excellent illustration of land use taxation. Go to to view in its entirety.)

Property on the island is used for agricultural purposes; some is in conservation easement and some in a wetland mitigation bank.

There is also a private bridge to the island.

Originally part of a crossing to Cumberland County - the James River span was washed out years ago and never replaced - the Elk Island Bridge is used by a handful of people.

Maintenance costs, borne by VDOT and chalked up to Goochland’s road expense, are considerable. Acting as a dam on the narrow channel between the island and the mainland, the Elk Island Bridge supports accumulate a great deal of debris. The deck elevation is nine feet below ten year flood levels. The bridge is narrow with substandard railings.

In the past two years, the bridge generated just over $1 million in debris and restoration costs, while other, more heavily used county roads remain unimproved. According to the VDOT presentation the least costly option for continued use of the bridge is about $100,000 while the most expensive alternative – replacement of the bridge- is estimated at more than $2 million.

A sacred cow to the previous regime, the Elk Island Bridge should not be funded by tax dollars, which should be used for needed road improvements in other parts of the county.

The board was clearly interested in removing the Elk Island Bridge from the state system. Steps to achieve this include public hearings and clearance from state agencies. Staff and VDOT will provide the board with a detailed analysis of the matter at a future meeting.

District 2 supervisors Manuel Alvarez, Jr. observed that the county annually collects about $8,000 in taxes from Elk Island and could spend more than $800,000 to rebuild a bridge that serves a handful of people.

VDOT is responsible for all road construction and maintenance of county roads. The supervisors prioritize projects under consideration. However, as Goochland’s annual allocation for transportation projects is less than $100,000, funding roads and getting anything completed is a frustratingly slow endeavor.

Moving any project from conception to completion takes a long time because funds are allocated over several years and construction begins only after enough allocations accumulate to fund the project. This is all further complicated by declining allocations and rising costs.

In a nutshell, Goochland, and most other Virginia counties pretty much beg for every road dollar in a method not unlike the “please sir, may I have some more” scene in the movie Oliver as the starving orphan begs for gruel.

The representatives from VDOT discussed the rural addition and pave in place programs, both of which are mechanisms to improve gravel roads.

Supervisors asked staff to determine criteria to be used to objectively designate roads for improvement. These could include the number of homes and properties served by a particular road; the cost of moving utilities and interest of adjacent residents.

Funds would be allocated during the secondary six year road plan event.

Establishing a set of objective criteria for all road projects will add transparency to the process and eliminate another opportunity for mischief.


The supervisors also voted unanimously, and with little discussion, to forego membership in both the Virginia Association of Counties(VACo) and the National Association of Counties (NACo.) As membership fees in these organizations are determined by population, jurisdictions with small populations, like Goochland, have little clout.

Susan Lascollette, District 1 stated that VACo did not support Goochland’s position on eminent domain and that membership in the organization does not provide enough value for the county to justify the membership fee.

Alvarez said that VACo “tells us one story and lobbies for something else in the General Assembly.”

In 2005, the previous regime used the NACo annual conference as an excuse for a taxpayer funded trip to Hawaii for all supervisors, the county administrator, and the county attorney.

When the NACo conference was held in Richmond, the county paid for hotel rooms downtown. The supervisors paid the school system $5,000 to create a video touting Goochland to entertain visitors on a trip to Williamsburg that same year. The video could have been used as a tool for economic development. It gives a flavor of the county to prospects and says good things about the school system.

Board vice chair Ken Peterson District 1 said “as to those annual conferences, we’re too good stewards of public resources to fall for that.”

The speed with which what passes for mainstream media in Richmond latched onto the NACo VACo news and used it to vilify the Tea Party is quite interesting. Guess the folks who spend a bundle on advertising have given the media marching orders about reporting on the proposed eminent domain amendment on the November ballot.

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