July, 1, 2004

Inch By Inch

My father, a master salesman if ever there was one, had a motto that served him well in his business dealings. "A 'no' is always a maybe," he would say, "and a maybe is always a 'yes'."

In light of the ridiculous conditions laid down last week by VDOT Commissioner Phillip Shucet for saving Clarkton Bridge, one might be tempted to question this bit of wisdom. Shucet, who gave bridge supporters a week to come up with $1.5 million to bring the structure up to VDOT standards, doesn't exactly exude an air of reasonableness as Clarkton Bridge's would-be executioner. Still, Shucet's "concession" shows that even ol' Stonewall himself is susceptible to public pressure. It's not much of a crack in VDOT's position, but it's a start.

Obviously, no one 'round these parts is going to come up with one and half million dollars to save an abandoned bridge in roughly the same amount of time it might take you or me to get around to visiting an ATM. Shucet's conditions for halting the bridge's demolition can only be construed as a slap in the face not only of local activists, but local governments, too, that have toiled to preserve this wonderful historic asset. A million and a half dollars in a week? Does Mr. Shucet require a check, or will credit cards do?

The risk that Shucet runs with such an absurd demand is that it plays into the worst stereotypes of VDOT. When has the transportation department ever done anything in a week? More to point, there are authoritative people out there who openly say that the $1.5 estimate for saving the bridge is ludicrous. Bill Wescott, a veteran bridge builder and North Carolina civil engineer interviewed by this newspaper, called the figure "crazy." If, as Wescott and others contend, the bridge can be safety converted into a pedestrian walkway for $250,000, what does that say for VDOT's costing department?

The battle for Clarkton Bridge is gaining headway on the political front, with Lt. Governor Tim Kaine and Fifth District Congressional candidate Al Weed jumping into the fray. Weed, facing an uphill battle to unseat incumbent Virgil Goode, has solid credentials as a historical preservationist - he serves as the Fifth District's trustee on Virginia Land Conservation Trust Fund - but he lacks the platform from which to challenge VDOT'S, decision. Still, Weed seems intent on forcing Virgil Goode to get involved in the issue, too, a very savvy plan indeed. (Just another sign that Weed would be a fine replacement for our current congressman.) Kaine, of course, is Virginia's official number two and is running for governor next year. His voice matters. And again, if Kaine adopts the cause of Clarkton Bridge as his own, his prospective rival in the 2005 gubernatorial race, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, won't be far behind.

One of the rules of public life is that if you give an inch, others will try to take a yard. Shucet clearly thought it best to shoot down any hopes of saving Clarkton Bridge by adopting his original hard line position. Then, prodded by the citizenry of Halifax and Charlotte Counties, he gave an inch, albeit with a counteroffer that reeks of insincerity. But you know what? "No"s do have a way of turning into maybes. A may lead to a yes. With a little luck and steady pressure, it might just happen this time, too.