June 24, 2004

Chainsaw Phil

Phillip Shucet must be angling for a nickname.

Shucet, the Commissioner of VDOT, no doubt is a man of great skill and accomplishment, having ascended to the leadership of a multi-billion dollar department responsible for one of the largest highway systems in the country. Problem is, VDOT is one screwed-up place regardless of how many zeroes it has in the budget. So Shucet is not only filling up the organizational chart as VDOT's head guy, he's supposed to be a turnaround artist as well.

In the business world, that role was personified by "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, who achieved fame for working his CEO mojo for whatever troubled corporation was willing to pay his tab. Chainsaw Al was notorious for putting niceties aside as he cut bloated companies down to size. That meant layoffs, pink slips, general hacking and cutting, and telling people to get lost if they disagreed with his methods.

As the prototypical tough-minded chief executive, Chainsaw Al was an American icon, nickname and all. Mr. Shucet has a way to go before he attains a similar place in the pantheon, but as a first step VDOT's publicists should con sider thinking up a catchy moniker for their boss.

How about "A Bridge Too Far" Phil? Or "Wrecking Ball" Shucet? TV trivia buffs may recognize shades of Jimmie "J.J." Walker in Mr. Commissioner Dy- By Tom McLaughlin No-Mite. "Old Blood and Guts" is already taken, but I understand the copyright has expired for, "Stonewall."

Shucet, more than any other individual, is responsible for VDOT's atrocious decision to tear down Clarkton Bridge. It's especially dismaying because VDOT staff, by all appearances, was making a good-faith effort with Halifax and Charlotte Counties to save the historic structure. Shucet must have looked upon this process with some combination of scorn and horror and knee-capped it before some VDOT staffer requested overtime so he could do the needed paperwork. History? Tourism? Preservation? What does any of that have to do with the bottom line?

What a stinking, crying shame. VDOT has adopted the lamentable task of state-run bureaucracies everywhere- a rigid, tunnel-vision adherence to the "mission," whatever that happens to be. You can almost imagine Shucet, in his office in Richmond, crossing Clarkton Bridge off VDOT's list of problems. Creaky old bridge in the middle of nowhere that needs to be blown up? Check..One down, ten thousand to go. There are a couple of ways to look at VDOT's dedision on Clarkton Bridge, keeping in mind the department's basic imperative of getting a handle on its runaway unfunded commitments all across Virginia. On the one hand, Clarkton Bridge is such a small matter that it's not worth VDOT's effort. That's the Shucet view. On the other, Clarkton Bridge is such a small matter that it really shouldn't be all that much to ask for the department to work with outside groups willing to take it over. Indeed, that's exactly what local and regional VDOT staffers were doing before Stonewall Shucet entered the picture.

The most infuriating thing about VDOT's decision is not the brutal stupidity of it, but the bad faith shown towards Halifax and Charlotte Counties and outside groups, that have worked so diligently to save the bridge. At a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board last week, Shucet (according to first-hand sources) said that his biggest regret was that the bridge wasn't torn down a year ago. Well, thanks, Phil. You could have saved your department, some money and everyone else a ton of grief by making your intentions known at the, time. Instead, in the past six months, VDOT has commissioned two studies that not,only showed the bridge could be saved, but that it wasn't in nearly as bad a shape as your P.R. department now contends. There was even a rough consensus that the bridge could be fixed up for transfer to new ownership for about the same amount of money VDOT planned to spend on its demolition. But we all know how bureaucracies work. VDOT can't be bothered with facts, even they're ones its own staff has produced.

I've heard it said that the Boards of Supervisors of Halifax and Charlotte Counties bear some blame for this situation because they failed to step up earlier with a plan for permanently funding the ongoing maintenance of Clarkton Bridge. I would have greater sympathy for this argument if VDOT had made clear what it expected from the counties, or from anyone else, at the outset. But the department didn't. Instead, there was an ongoing process of study and negotiations involving VDOT, local governments and preservation groups until someone - and we all know who - abruptly cut it short. You can't blame local officials for that.

So now we're left with a situation where Shucet has dug in his heels and the only man who can overrule him, the governor, has the choice of doing nothing or embarrassing the guy he brought in personally to fix VDOT. Some choice, huh? Mark Warner probably is too busy basking in the glory of his recent political successes to pay much attention to this issue. But understand one thing, Mr. Governor: legacies aren't always about the things you leave behind. They're also about the things you take away. If you let this decision stand, a small but important part of Southside Virginia's heritage and soul dies on your watch.

As Mr. Shucet would surely understand, this is no time for niceties. Let the governor know how you feel. Here's how you can contact him:

Governor Mark R, Warner
State Capitol, 3rd Floor
Richmond, Virginia 23219
Phone: (804) 786-2211
Fax: (804) 371-6351
TTY/TDD (For the Hearing Impaired): (804) 371-8015
e-mail at wwwgovemorvirginia.gov/

You can also check the Clarkton Bridge website at www.clarktonbridge.com.

As for "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop, he was ultimately exposed as a cheater and a fraud. We are confident that no such fate awaits Commmissioner Shucet. Still, if he comes and goes and VDOT remains up - to its ears in problems -, which seems likely - one will have to wonder: was progress served when he got rid of Clarkton Bridge with the stroke of his pen? I don't think so.