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Cents of Frustration

The tolls and tribulations of crossing the river.

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To many, that two-quarter submission is social injustice. It's why some Chesterfielders would rather poke their eyes out with their car keys than give the city any money for a new baseball stadium, or allow buses to cross the county line.

Those of us living south of the river have long been looked down upon by West Enders and other uppity Richmond types. The toll seemed to be their way of saying, "If you want to come to our side of town you'll have to pay a fee."

So seeing the tolls go on the fritz in late August — Tropical Storm Gaston flooded the tunnel underneath the booths, zapping the computer system — encouraged brief euphoria. No tolls for the weary! Legally, of course, the tolls can't be suspended. After a week, Smart Tag lanes were up and running, but the rest of the collection system was damaged to the point of no return. To compensate, the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which owns and operates the main Powhite toll plaza, has been collecting money the old fashioned way: with outstretched arms and oversized buckets.

The electronic toll system must be replaced, according to James Kennedy, director of operations for the RMA, and won't be fully operable until early next year.

You'd think that would send us Chesterfielders through the foam-covered crossbar. (I've done this only once.)

But the bucket-holding toll-takers have been a breath of fresh air. The lanes have been smooth. And there's something different about the new toll attendants. They're actually cordial to motorists. It's as if they're reaching out, offering a hearty pat on the back, saying, "Go forward, South Sider, take on the day."

Kennedy says since many new attendants have been hired, many through a temporary agency, they are fresh from the classroom, which helps explain the attitude adjustment.

"When we hire someone, they go through a full three-day training period," Kennedy says. "There is actually a training classroom, and a mock tollbooth set up."

While the RMA has had "customer service issues" in the past, Kennedy says, it typically fields very few complaints. It's not that the attendants are consistently rude — although a high school friend of mine claims that in the late '80s, a toll attendant once jumped out of a booth, for no apparent reason, and threatened to beat him up. It's that they aren't always pleasant. It's the little mannerisms: jerking the money out of your hand, not returning a simple 'hello,' the get-out-of-my-face glares.

I know the tolls are simply fees to pay off debt on the parkway. And, yes, without Powhite half of Chesterfield would still be dirt and sticks.

But South Siders are the only ones who must pay the toll to get into the city within a reasonable time. Powhite, the gateway between the county and city, also abuts the portion of Chesterfield annexed by Richmond in 1970. This is another sore point.

Like many who live in the county and work in the city, I've been paying tolls for more than a decade — 16 years, to be precise. I have dropped, by a conservative estimate, $6,250 into those little metal baskets. So, if you think about it, I actually own a small piece of the parkway, or maybe a booth, as do countless others who use the road everyday. The RMA reports there were 35,112,800 vehicle trips through the Powhite toll in fiscal 2004.

Yet we are treated like criminals: Those insidious state troopers who hide behind the booth, secretly scanning for expired stickers and plates. There are also four tollbooth cops employed by the RMA, Kennedy says, whose job it is to hunt down motorists who deliberately drive through the tolls without paying. (The toll with the highest number of violations? The unmanned toll on Douglas Dale Road by the city stadium.)

Maybe the RMA is softening a bit with its friendlier attendants. Perhaps they sense the tide is turning on them. With the completion of state Route 288, Powhite users who work in the West End are beginning to bypass the Powhite altogether. Less toll revenue, fewer criminals for the toll cops to chase.

And as drivers bypass the tolls, they'll bypass the city, too. The RMA isn't sure just yet how 288 has affected traffic; with the system down, it's impossible to audit accurately. But there could be a drop, even a big drop, in Powhite traffic over the next couple of years.

Don't be surprised if the city experiences more business defections to the suburbs. As a business owner, if you can get better, easier access to the interstates, be closer to suburbs, and move into a new office building with plenty of parking (in other words, Goochland County's West Creek business park) why stay in the city? Why keep paying the tolls?

No, wait, it isn't about the 50 cents. S





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