Highway Pork and the Solar Hill Project in Bristol, Virginia
by Lewis Loflin
In the summer of 2008 the Solar Hill Project is due to begin. First hatched by local politicians in 2004, City officials have worked to divert two grants (state and federal highway funds) totaling $353,000 into another useless pork-barrel project. The City of Bristol, Virginia will add in $88,000 and has already spent over $60,000. Bristol spent $10,000 in 1999 to survey the area for the National Historic Register instead of fixing streets they claim they can't afford. (What am I missing here?) So what kind of transportation will almost a half-million dollars buy for taxpayers? Try zero while Virginia wants to raise taxes to pay for roads.
What's so special about Solar Street? According to the Solar Hill Historic District Association "in 1869 an astronomical observatory was located on a hill in Bristol to view a total solar eclipse. The area was named Solar Hill after this observatory. Some of Bristol's most colorful history occurred in the area, including stories involving several men who later became U.S. presidents.
A regular visitor to the area was Andrew Jackson, who frequented the King mansion and was escorted to Washington for his inauguration by William King. Andrew Johnson was injured in a stagecoach accident when a hornet flew into the coach, causing passengers to flee and spooking the horses. The coach overturned near what are now King and Sullins streets and left him with a scar he carried for the rest of his life..."
According to the press, "Initially approved by city leaders in 2004, plans call for new sidewalks, decorative street lights, the relocation of electrical wiring underground and signs. Work is set for a five-block area in the city's oldest residential neighborhood..." The contractors are just foaming at the mouth for the loot. The main holdup has been getting construction easements from the absentee landowners. There's nothing wrong with the present street lights.
Located a few blocks from the Rice Terrace public housing project, Solar Hill is in a rundown section of Bristol, Virginia whose old homes have been converted into apartments. "The project will involve 130 homes in an area that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001...The city plans to bid out the installation of new sidewalks and historic markers...while Bristol Virginia Utilities will install the new lighting and relocate electrical lines."
But Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVUB) was supposed to have done that job already without another taxpayer handout. They are owned by the City of Bristol, Virginia. Instead of using City funds to pay for this, they instead sunk millions into a golf coarse and almost three million into a Cracker Barrel restaurant. I wonder what contractor will get this loot?
Just what justifies this waste?
Now Solar Street residents are up in arms due to delays; they might not get all the taxpayer freebies they want due to inflation. It's as if $441,000 in grant money isn't enough. According to one City official, "I can't stand here and tell you what the bids will be...With the way the cost of everything is going up and what the economy is doing, we just don't know. That's why the project is set up in phases. We hope it [affordable bids] comes in, and we can do all of it. That major oversight, along with inflation, has increased the project costs by $114,000. Had we known that in 2005, 2006 or 2007, we could have gone back and applied for more money. But we didn't, and we don't have a time machine, so we can't go back."
But other City official seemed even more confused on this: "I don't know where the figures for the first estimate came from...the city doesn't have anything in its records that shows the source of the figures...The city's only copy of the original project estimate appears on a document bearing the neighborhood association letterhead...The work includes installation of about 50 decorative street lights, (but) the city initially underestimated the number of lights needed...
Residents also had questions about construction easements and "were "appalled" that about 50 construction easements remained unsigned in 2008. "It shouldn't have taken four years to get this project going," said one irate property owner. Is he one the absentee property owners or is his property for sale? When I visited the street in July 2008 I saw several "for sale" signs and to be honest, there's nothing really wrong with the signs, sidewalks, and lamp posts they want to replace. In fact Solar Street is in far better shape than many neighboring streets such as Scott Street. But all the taxpayer funded decorations could up the sale price for those that want to sell. See the pictures I took below.
This "beautification" project doesn't address the poverty in the area or lack of jobs, but "includes the installation of 10 historic markers, a prominent gateway portal sign at the corner of Cumberland and Johnson streets, a map dispenser and maps for visitors to the neighborhood." $30,000 was added to the total for a few markers and a map dispenser. The City already being $110 million in debt and broke from other porky business projects is worried: "We're concerned the markers might need to be funded on the next go-round...We won't know until the bids come in, but the price of everything is going up." Ref. BHC June 24 and July 3, 2008
VDOT Finalizes Six-Year Plan With $1 Billion Cuts
Did I mention the Virginia Department of Transportation is looking at a $1.1 billion shortfall? To quote senior VDOT officials, "We continue our focus on safety and projects that we can advance through the pipeline to make the most of the funds we have available...13 primary Southwest Virginia roadway projects are being delayed, and 14 more are to be cut. On secondary and side roads, more than 60 projects will be delayed and more than 30 will be eliminated. The vast majority of projects being cut are minor road widening, drainage improvements and paving, according to the lists." BHC June 14, 2008
In an article entitled "Where Do All the Welfare Billions Go?" (Human Events, February 6, 1982) M. Stanton Evans points out:
One has to wonder how it is possible to spend these hundreds of billions to alleviate poverty and still have the same number of poor people that we had, say, in 1968...It prompts the more suspicious among us to ask: What happened to the money?...[A] tremendous chunk of these domestic outlays goes to pay the salaries of people who work for and with the federal government - including well-paid civil servants and an array of contractors and "consultants," many of whom have gotten rich from housing programs, "poverty" studies, energy research grants, and the like...
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