Virginia's Incompetent Snow Job

Push responsibility down to the lowest level possible, and things will get done.

A few weeks ago, we published a series discussing the travails of Northern Virginia's traffic and exploring the underlying government incompetence that created and sustained the problem.  Our new Republican governor-elect has promised to fix the disastrous traffic, but unfortunately we don't see how he will be able to actually accomplish improvement on the ground without making some pretty fundamental changes in the way Virginia governance is organized.

As luck would have it, we were recently presented with yet another example of the problem and its underlying causes.

Let It Snow

The weekend before Christmas, the Eastern seaboard was hit with a record-setting blizzard, global warming notwithstanding.  The South got torrential rain and the North got a snowy mess, but it seems like Northern Virginia was the hardest hit: almost two feet blanketed the entire region.

As we've explored before, snow is not unknown in our nation's capital and the surrounding region.  The various highway departments do own plows and road-treating equipment; there are many private snow-removal contractors from large construction companies on down to private individuals with a pickup truck.

For once, the weather service provided ample and accurate warning of the deluge to come, and arrive it did, right on time.  The trucks were loaded and even pre-positioned where they'd be needed.  No better situation for preparation could be imagined.

Oddly enough, the response started out more or less OK.  They couldn't keep all their roads cleared as a New England state would, but well into the storm, the major highways were at least passable.  By the time the storm wound down, the energy of the plow drivers was worn out too, and conditions deteriorated, but by the next day after a well-deserved rest they were back on the job.

The Squeaking Wheel

Or so, at least, the TV claimed.  Looking out my window revealed a different story.  Not once throughout the entire storm had my street or neighborhood received so much as a single swipe from a plow.

Again, let me be clear: it's not reasonable to expect a residential side road to be kept immaculate throughout the biggest storm in many years.  It is, however, reasonable to expect one pass by a snowplow sometime within a 48-hour period, just to make it possible to move around.  Rare indeed is the car that can handle two feet of snow.

Unfortunately, in Virginia at least, rare also is the driver who knows what he and his car can and cannot handle when it comes to snow.  One is forced to wonder at the IQ of the moron who took a Prius, with its 12-inch wheels and 2-inch clearance, out in a snowy mess that would challenge a Suburban.  I helped shove him out of the snowbank; no doubt he wound up stuck in another one a little further down the road.  There's no helping some people.

Eventually, after enough fools had tried to drive, the snow started to get packed down.  Two feet of snow crunches down to something like 4 inches of ice and that's what we had covering our road.  Not smooth, of course, it was as pitted and washboarded as the worst rural dirt road of your nightmares, but that didn't stop people from skidding around anyway.

You know it's bad when you intentionally don't dig your car out of the snowbank it's parked in because you want to leave the snowbank there to protect your car from incompetent drivers acting out the Skater's Waltz!

As it happens, my other car is very well-equipped for heavy weather and ice, and I've had plenty of experience with winter driving, so I went out to take a look around.  And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but all the businesses neatly plowed by their private contractors!

The major roads were passable, naturally, by virtue of traffic; the malls and stores were immaculate, having their own heavy equipment on-property and not dependent on anyone else.

It was the residential neighborhoods that were a truly strange sight.  Seemingly randomly, some residential roads were untouched like mine, even fairly major ones.  Then there were others, in contrast, even minor back roads, that were as clean as the mall parking lot.  Why?

Subsidiarity and Government Responsiveness

Come to find out, not all roads are created equal.  Most roads are the responsibility of the state highway department; but some subdivisions haven't managed to transfer their roads to the government and are responsible for their own maintenance.  Of course, shopping center parking lots are exclusively the property of their owners.

This was the reason for the stark difference!  Those parking lots and streets who had somebody responsible for them, got taken care of.

The mall has a big front-end loader standing by.  The neighborhood Homeowners Association has a contract with a private plow; if for some reason the contractor fails to do the job, the HOA board members will be deluged with complaints and another provider summoned forthwith.

But what of those who depend on the government?  As we saw previously in our discussion of road construction, there is nobody to call who is directly responsible to see that maintenance, plowing, or construction are properly done.  The governor isn't going to care about one little cul-de-sac so neither do any of the bureaucrats.

Instead, it's all political pull coupled with campaign contributions.  Obviously the major roads will get cleaned because everyone uses them.  The roads where a VDOT employee or his mother happens to live will probably get well-treated too, and certainly the county supervisor's street.  But streets where nobody of any importance lives... well, who cares about them?

The original developers who built most of the Northern Virginia neighborhoods probably figured that they were doing their customers a favor by arranging for the government to take control of their streets.  After all, they'll pay property taxes regardless; if the HOA had to take care of the streets too, the HOA fees would be larger.  In effect, they were trying to pass off the maintenance cost to the entire state - that is, to socialize the cost.

Recognize the word root?  In a small scale, that is socialism at work: public (in this case, state) provision of a private benefit (the clearing of a neighborhood road used only by its residents).

For precisely the same reason that socialism doesn't work at the national level, it doesn't work here: if everybody is responsible for something, nobody is.  Passing responsibility up the chain of government seems like a good idea.  But it's not: the only result is that what you want to get done doesn't, and you're still paying huge taxes.

The Limits of Government Provision

Looked at in this way, we see all manner of "government services" that don't work well because there's no responsibility or accountability between whoever needs the service and whoever provides it.

Consider the government functions that actually do work pretty decently: our military, fire service, and police.  Each and every one of us needs those services, or might urgently need them at any time; it is right and proper that we all pay to use them.

Similarly, almost all of us use the interstate highway system, though we don't all use every part of it equally.  Almost all of us use the national air transport system - some more than others, which is why it's partially paid for by passenger fees.

But we do not all use the education system, and certainly not equally.  Yet there is very little connection between the taxpayers who pay for public schools and accountability that the schools be well run.

Particularly in our inner cities, the schools can be wretched hives of scum and villainy for decades on end, consuming countless hundreds of billions of dollars to no good end, and yet nobody is willing to fix the problem.  The only way they'll ever be solved is to free each individual parent and child to make their own school selection, paid for by a voucher so the money follows the child reflecting their family's choice.

My HOA fee is very small.  I wouldn't mind paying somewhat more if the HOA were responsible for road maintenance.  I know where the board members live; I could easily run for the board myself if I thought I could do a better job.

But I can't run for governor, at least not seriously, and no matter how good the governor, he cannot fix all of Virginia's roads by himself.  By pushing the power, authority, money, and responsibility down to the lowest possible level, we would all be far better served, and the governor could take the credit.

Don't hold your breath.  The snow will eventually melt; alas, centralized government power never goes away so easily.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
"Not once throughout the entire storm had my street or neighborhood received so much as a single swipe from a plow"

So? What is the legal construct of your neighborhood? It's possible - and very likely - that neither VA state nor your county has any plowing jurisdiction and your local HOA was suppose to take care of it.

"I wouldn't mind paying somewhat more if the HOA were responsible for road maintenance."

They probably ARE responsible. Have you checked? The vast majority of HOAs that I've ever heard of take care of plowing, not the municipality or county. I own three homes in three different HOAs and that is exactly the case with all three.

Your article waxes on and on about a failure of government yet I see no where where you confirmed for sure what the problem was.

The municipality, county or state should NEVER be responsible for plowing private roads or subdivision. Those that LIVE there (and/or own the property) should be responsible. That makes sure that each person is afforded the service that they want/pay for.
December 28, 2009 9:55 AM
Yes, I have confirmed that my particular street is a government-maintained one, and not the responsibility of the HOA.

"The municipality, county or state should NEVER be responsible for plowing private roads or subdivision. Those that LIVE there (and/or own the property) should be responsible. That makes sure that each person is afforded the service that they want/pay for."

Bingo. It was because the original developers tried to socialize the maintenance, and the government went along with it at the time, that the problem has arisen.
December 28, 2009 10:23 AM
In Minnesota we have what is called "local government aid". Essentially, all of the small towns (many years ago) complained to the state they couldn't afford "basic" services. They complained the property taxes weren't sufficient to cover their expenses and that the property tax collections were not equitable (some counties had more valuable property than other counties). So, the state government created "local government aid". Essentially, providing local governments with an allowance.

Now, the state can no longer afford to send local governments their allowance check. The state isn't collecting enough in taxes to cover expenses. Local governments are now whining that they can't provide "basic" services. The problem is that they never learned to operate within the limits of what their citizens could pay. They socialized their local services.

What's going to happen? Essential services will be cut, non-essential will be left alone in the age-old game to manipulate the voters into giving them more money.

This article is a small example of what has occurred wholesale in Minnesota between the state and local governments (counties, cities, townships).
December 28, 2009 10:24 AM
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