Isle of Wight at the center of transportation vote

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 14, 2007

ISLE OF WIGHT—When county supervisors meet Thursday, they could be in the position to approve a regional transportation plan that some opponents are worried will have the unintended effect of driving business from Isle of Wight to the City Franklin and Southampton and Surry counties.

With its dual identities—one of Hampton Roads’ fastest-growing bedroom communities and one of Virginia’s oldest agricultural areas, separated by an increasingly inadequate Route 460—Isle of Wight epitomizes both sides of the debate over Hampton Roads’ transportation plans.

For supporters and opponents of the proposed Hampton Roads Transportation Authority, the county is looking like the potential tipping point for approval or rejection of the plan laid out by the General Assembly to address the need for transportation improvements within the region.

The very tip of that tipping point may be Hardy District Supervisor James B. Brown Jr., who is shaping up to be the swing vote on the Board of Supervisors and one of the most-lobbied local politicians in Hampton Roads, if not all of Virginia.

As Thursday’s meeting and a promised vote on the issue looms, Brown’s telephone has hardly stopped ringing.

“I’ve gotten 22 calls this morning,” he said during a telephone interview Tuesday morning, itself interrupted three times by other calls.

Calls had come from within the county and without—including one from Gov. Timothy Kaine—and from those who favor approving the new Authority, as well as those opposed to it.

“I’m going to vote my conscience,” Brown said. “I’ve listened to a lot of people, and I’m going to use my own experience, as well.”

One particularly vocal group of opponents has been Isle of Wight’s auto repair industry, which could lose business to competitors in neighboring municipalities, many of whom would not be subject to the new taxes the Transportation Authority would be able to levy within its participating communities.

Isle of Wight is one of 12 localities that would be affected by formation of the Authority. None of its neighbors to the west—Franklin, Southampton and Surry—would be members, nor would they be subject to the array of new taxes that would be imposed on member communities.

That inequity is at the heart of complaints from auto and truck repair businesses in Isle of Wight, whose customers would be subject to a 5-percent additional tax on repairs to their vehicles, as well as higher state inspection fees.

“An invoice is read from the bottom, up,” said Tony Rhodes, owner of Rhodes Garage near Windsor, noting that the average customer will be less concerned with the taxes that contribute to higher repair bills and more likely to take their business to nearby garages outside the Authority’s sphere of influence and unaffected by the district’s special taxes.

Wilson Holland, one of the owners of Dewitt’s Automotive Center, located on Route 258 near Windsor, said that about a third of his business comes from “the other side of the Blackwater River” and will be at risk if the new taxes go into effect.

Even some county officials, his daughter and co-owner Rebecca Duck said, have told them they would be likely to travel the extra 10 miles to Franklin to save money on inspection and repair fees.

“We’re stirred up here,” Holland said, noting that he had solicited support from other garages throughout the county after receiving a last-minute tip that the issue would be up for a vote during a Board of Supervisors meeting last month.

After postponing votes on the issue through two meetings, the board agreed to make a decision during Thursday’s meeting. That decision followed a packed-house meeting in which both opponents and supporters made their cases before supervisors.

Since then, even NAPA Auto Parts has gotten involved, lobbying supervisors and city council members throughout the region to vote against creating the Authority.

The NAPA Web site lists 19 auto parts stores and 40 Autocare centers within a 40-mile radius of Norfolk, so the company’s interest is easy to understand. Rhodes and Holland appreciate the help in getting out the word about what they think is a topic many Isle of Wight residents figure will not affect them.

“I’ve tried to inform some of the public,” Rhodes said. “But I’m afraid we’re going to end up being the ones informing them (on their invoices) if this passes through.”

Meanwhile, Brown continues to take calls from people on both sides of the issue and refuses to say which way he’ll vote, though his comments seem to indicate qualified support for the Authority.

“Traffic conditions are bad, and we need roads that can carry us,” he said, pointing out that almost 40 percent of Isle of Wight’s residents commute to work, often to the most congested parts of Hampton Roads. Many of those residents live in the fast-growing northern end of the county, but Brown said all of the county’s residents should have an interest in the goals the Authority would attempt to achieve.

Improved highway safety, ease of evacuation and increased economic development would be three results of the work the Authority would accomplish, he said. And if the county opposes the Authority at its start, Isle of Wight could find itself shut out of important developments. For instance, the other municipalities could agree to omit a Windsor-area interchange along the proposed new Route 460, eliminating opportunities for development nearby.

The new Route 460, from Suffolk to Petersburg, is one of six projects the Authority would fund with the estimated $177 million in new taxes.

“There are some liabilities we have to be prepared to accept if we don’t vote for it,” he said, adding that he had been assured by the governor there would be a chance to amend the Authority’s charter and tax structure once it is in place.

“If things aren’t right (with the Authority), there is always an opportunity to correct the things that aren’t right,” he said. “All aspects need to be considered.”