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Bob Wooten: Funding cuts spell danger on highways

By Bob Wooten - bwooten@nvdaily.com

I was driving home last Sunday from a trip out of town when a huge gator showed me his teeth and then put the bite on me.

It happened while I was northbound and following a tractor-trailer on Interstate 81 between the Mt. Jackson and Bowman's Crossing exits.

The trucker suddenly swerved, and out from beneath the rig appeared a large object that at first looked like a black bear curled up and napping on the pavement.

Moments later, I found out it wasn't a bear but a "gator" -- a piece of tire tread left over from a tractor-trailer blowout. Truckers call them gators because the long, dark strips look a lot like the carnivorous reptiles.

With another car across from me in the left lane, I had nowhere to go. The impact left my teeth chattering.

It also left a big piece of my front bumper somewhere along the road.

The good news is no one was hurt, the car is still driveable and the insurance company has been reasonable.

The bad news is those gators will soon be spending a lot more time lurking along Virginia's highways.

Along with mowing, pothole repairs and snow removal, clearing away this kind of debris is part of the Virginia Department of Transportation's basic mission. VDOT, however, is about to get leaner while the roads get meaner.

On June 18, the Commonwealth Transportation Board took the chain saw to VDOT's 2010 budget and its updated six-year plan. The cuts included $2 billion out of the construction budget, $391 million from administration and support programs, and $348 million from maintenance and operations.

That last item is where the gators come in.

The cuts mean VDOT crews will spend less time on the highways clearing away those tire treads -- along with deer carcasses, lost truck cargo and the occasional piece of furniture. The same holds true for mowing, which helps maintain visibility for motorists.

Don't take this as criticism of the folks who work for VDOT: They are fine public servants who do an important job.

Pin the blame on the collective political establishment in Richmond, including, but not limited to, the current governor and General Assembly. Richmond has kicked the can down the road on funding our transportation needs for so long that gridlock is now the norm.

Unfortunately, they squandered all those years the state's economy was booming, when tackling the problem wasn't so daunting. We're in a recession now, and state revenues are drying up like raindrops on hot asphalt.

I don't know whether anyone keeps statistics on how many people are killed or maimed in traffic crashes caused by highway debris, so we may never tally up the human cost associated with VDOT's new austerity budget.

For now, I'll simply hope the next time VDOT crews are out rounding up gators on I-81, they find that piece of my bumper and safely dispose of it.

* Bob Wooten is the managing editor of the Daily. Contact him at 800-296-5137 or at bwooten@nvdaily.com

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