Buckingham Bus Crash Prompts Action, Ideas

Published 3:39 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013

BUCKINGHAM – The March 11 meeting of the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors began with a crash-the school bus accident that occurred on February 26 along Route 698, Mountain View Road.

During the public comment segment, Jessica Carroll, a resident in District 5, identified herself as a “concerned parent” who lives on Mountain View Road.

Describing the accident as one that resulted in “minor bumps and bruises,” Carroll stated, “But it could have ended in the loss of life.” She shared, “There were some angels watching over that driver and kids that day.”

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Carroll offered, “I understand that our road is just a dirt road but the dynamics of the road and the homes have changed.” She explained that since her graduation from Buckingham County High School, six new houses have been constructed along the road, bringing the total to 12, not including three added on Foxfire Road.

Noting that some of those who grew up along that road have returned and are now raising their children there, Carroll shared, “All of which deserve to ride a bus on a safe road.”

Explaining that she received a call from her oldest child about the bus accident, Carroll stated, “My heart stopped knowing that my youngest and also my niece and five of my cousins were on that bus and the conditions on the road were not the best because it had rained all day.”

She shared that her concern was not only for the safety of her children and relatives but also for all the children that ride that bus.

“We need to find a way to help this road,” said Carroll. “I understand that the county cannot afford to pave it. I am not asking you to. I am asking that VDOT surface-treat it or even put a higher quality of gravel on it.”

Noting that the road now has gravel, “lots of gravel,” Carroll described that as a “Band-Aid fix.”

She told supervisors, “I believe our road qualifies for the Rural Rustic Program and would like to see us added to that program.”

Another District 5 resident, Robert Anderson, followed with his concerns about the road. Calling the accident a “wake-up call,” he described the road as a “serious problem' and “nothing but clay.”

Anderson continued, “Everybody keeps saying that they don't have funding for it but I can tell you right now the funding has got to be there somewhere.”

Andrea Snoddy, a parent who had two children on the bus the day of the accident, shared, “To get that phone call from your kids is terrifying.”

She called for improved “upkeep” of the road, including the ditches, to keep the children who ride the bus safe and prevent such an accident from happening again.

Reminding that he has been talking about paving roads and the Six-Year Plan for nine years, Supervisor Bill Talbert shared the futility of trying to get funds shifted around to pave the roads that are most traveled.

VDOT Responds

The public comment segment led into the monthly VDOT report. As Scot Shippee, assistant resident administrator, began his presentation, he said crews were continuing with pothole patching and storm clean-up from the March 6 snowstorm.

He thanked VDOT crews for the “excellent service” they provided during the snow removal operations. Shippee shared, “For this particular storm, all hard-surfaced routes were cleared within 12 hours from the ending of the snowfall, which is significantly ahead of VDOT's goal of having all paved roadways cleared within 48 hours.” He added, “So I would like to thank them for that.”

Moving on to Route 698, Shippee offered “a little history as we understand it.” He shared that on the Monday prior to the bus accident, crews went out to repair some of the issues with the road as part of the normal maintenance operation.

“Due to the heavy rainstorm that saturated the roadway, it created the conditions that existed at the time of the accident,” stated Shippee.

He explained that although it is typical of any gravel road that the finer material will rise to the top, this situation was slightly worse due to the severe rain and the minimal traffic.

Shippee advised that while crews were out correcting the accident site, they preceded to make more extensive repairs to the entire roadway because it was more cost-effective to do so with the personnel and equipment already at the site.

“I would like to point-out that VDOT does not have the maintenance funds to maintain all gravel roads to the point that 698 was brought to,” said Shippee. “However, if there are any trouble spots that you are aware of or any citizens are aware of, you are encouraged to call the VDOT Call Center at 1-800-367-7623 to report these concerns, put them on the record, because we use this information as we're developing maintenance priorities.”

He shared that since the accident he has had a few questions about how best to go about getting roads such as 698 paved.

“The answer to that question is that if there is an interest by the board to do so, then these routes will need to be added to your Six-Year Plan,” explained Shippee, noting that he would be working with the board of supervisors to update that plan within the next couple of months.

“I would like to say just as a point of reference, Buckingham County is typically allocated about $60,000 a year for improvements on non-hard-surfaced roads,” shared Shippee. “Cost to surface treat a road runs about $100,000 per mile. So in effect, the county can afford surface treating about half-a-mile of gravel road every year.” He added, “That's not a lot of money to work with but that's what we have.”

County Administrator Rebecca Carter asked, “Would that road qualify for Rural Rustic?”

Joining Shippee at the podium, Kevin Wright, resident administrator, responded, “We would have to review that road.” He explained that currently with the funds the county is receiving for that program there is no minimum vehicle per day qualification.

Wright added, “On your old unpaved road fund, it was 50 vehicles per day minimum.”

Continuing Wright shared that the transportation package that passed the House and Senate includes a “good sum of money for these unpaved roads in most all counties in Virginia.”

However, he added, “The thing that we are unsure about is what qualifications the General Assembly has placed on this.”

Wright noted that the initial list of projects showed a minimum of 200 vehicles per day before a road would qualify for those funds. He shared that he was told the specifics are being ironed out; and, they are waiting for the Governor to sign the bill.

“Until we have the final package and the final guidelines, we are not sure but we are hopeful and we are pressing to be able to use those as much as possible,” said Wright.

Supervisors Speak-Out

At that point, Supervisor John Staton shared his thoughts on the road conditions on Route 698 on the day of the accident. He called for a thorough investigation by VDOT.

“Praise God nobody was seriously injured or killed,” stated Staton. Sharing that he revisited the scene to look at the repairs, he offered, “They will do for now but like the lady said they are just a Band-Aid. More needs to be done in the future.”

Continuing, Staton said, “I applaud the efforts of the school system, the sheriff's department, the state police, the EMS people, and the citizens who responded.” He added that he especially wanted to applaud the high school students who helped the younger children off the bus.

Concluding his remarks, Staton noted that he provided VDOT with a copy of his statements and asked that they be passed “up-the-line.”

Addressing Staton's comments, Wright said he requested that a traffic engineer from the Lynchburg headquarters come down and review everything. He added that they had also received the accident report from the Virginia State Police.

“We do want to take a look at this to make sure nothing like this happens again,” assured Wright. “We are taking this serious. We are already in the process of investigating this to see what happened.”

Wright assured, “We are taking a look at this and we will address anything that needs to be done.”

He shared, “We actually had an emergency incident responder on the scene that night to access what was there and he has given me his report as well as provided that to the district administrator in Lynchburg.”

Addressing the work done on the road after the accident, Wright offered, “You are right, what we've done is what we could do for right now until everything dries out a little bit more.”

Continuing, Wright stated, “But ultimately we don't have the money to keep gravel roads from getting wet and sloppy on top. No amount of money could do that for all the gravel roads that we've got all over the state. We do the best we can and we are certainly going to address any problems that we know of.”

After Staton questioned when they stopped using the drags behind the trucks, Wright explained, “Most of the time, these roads have enough traffic to pack that material back down. That's one of the things that happened in this case-that one section of road is very low in traffic so it didn't have enough traffic in there to compact it back down.”

Wright stated, “One of the lessons learned there for that crew was that we brought the roller out the next day to set that material back into place after we did blade it.”

Referencing Staton's question about drags, Wright, noting that they do have the drags and they are used a lot, explained, “Because they do only take a little bit and we can straighten the surface up without having to break it like you are talking about.” He added, “That is part of what we are looking at and addressing-making sure that we use the best practices that we've got in place.”

Supervisor Cassandra Stish, who represents District 5 where the accident occurred, stated, “I'm interested in a solution. I want to figure out how we can do this within the means that we've got, with the programs that exist.”

She added that if that was not feasible, they needed to get together and come up with a new rural rustic spot improvement program.

Stish asked Wright if he and Shippee would work with Ronnie Palmore, transportation director for the school division, to ascertain the ten or 12 most critical bus route issues.

“Let's put them together on a schedule,” stated Stish, noting that she was talking about addressing the most problematic sections of those roads. “Let's work on that.” She said to do so may mean that VDOT develops a new plan, a new program.

Stish shared her commitment to work with her fellow supervisors, the county administration, VDOT, and the Commonwealth Regional Council to find a solution. “I am going to spearhead this personally,” she stated. “I want to see something done.”

Wright responded, “I think that is a great idea.” Noting that VDOT is often in contact with Palmore regarding his concerns, Wright added that there are two groups of people that know more about the roads than anybody-school bus drivers and mail carriers. “We actually rely on both of them and get calls frequently from them,” he added.

“We'll work with Mr. Palmore and we can take that list and see what we can do with our maintenance funds, like you said, on those critical spots,” said Wright.

He reiterated that they needed to get the specifics on the transportation package concerning funding for rural rustic roads and the qualifications, if any, for traffic counts on those roads.

Stish said that part of the conversation would be to ask the public if they would rather see one road fixed in its entirety or see ten or twelve trouble spots fixed. “I guess that becomes the question,” she stated.

Describing Stish's idea as “out-of-the-box thinking, Wright said he was open to the idea and really liked it but there were a few obstacles to overcome. ” We will get into the bureaucracy and I will do everything I can to make it happen. You have my word on that,” he stated.

Thanking Wright, Stish, noting the opportunity for a lesson learned, shared, “I'm grateful beyond words that this took our hat and not our heads. I think we would be foolish not to capitalize on this opportunity to do something better.”

Agreeing with the approach of addressing the needs, Supervisor Bill Talbert stated, “The Six-Year Plan is not working. Do away with it.”

He reiterated his previously recommended proposal of legislation authorizing counties to implement a wheels tax with the resultant revenues used specifically for paving unpaved roads.

Supervisor Danny Allen talked about taking the money for the project on 631 at Route 20, which he said really didn't need to be done right now, and using those funds to fix some of the roads.

Wright explained that if the county decided they didn't want to move forward with the Route 631 project, it would have to pay for all the engineering work that has been completed thus far. He added that the majority of the project is not funded with what he called county funds.

“Honestly, it wouldn't get you very far,” said Wright. “The best thing we can do is just hope this Transportation Package comes through for us.”