RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In a state Capitol more divided by partisanship each passing year, some of the deepest rifts are over place, not party. Consider a spat between urban and rural legislators Wednesday over the longest stretch of highway in Virginia.
Del. Charles Poindexter from Glade Hill in scenic Franklin County engaged the regional rift full-on when he sought the Senate Finance Committee's blessing for funding to widen and modernize a serpentine stretch of the more than 500-mile-long route.
Try explaining to legislators whose constituents simmer in gridlocked northern Virginia traffic up to two hours each way every day why a 20-mile bottleneck on U.S. 58 in southwestern Virginia matters.
And try telling lawmakers from struggling communities that rely on Highway 58 as a commercial lifeline why paralyzed suburban freeways in northern Virginia's affluent suburbs of Washington are a problem far outside the Beltway.
Virginia is a commonwealth, but it is also an amalgamation of distinct regions distinguished by vastly differing cultures and biases.
"You roll back the clock 20, 30, 50 years ago. Northern Virginia was a small, sleepy bedroom community of Washington, D.C. Virginia Beach was a small port city in Hampton Roads. I've lived in all of them," said Sen. Bill Stanley, who now lives in Franklin County.
Mega-malls and tiny boutiques, gleaming corporate parks and leafy subdivisions now sprawl across a northern Virginia landscape where a generation ago rabbit hunters trod just 30 miles from the White House. That region's commercial environment dominates Virginia's economy today.
Not long ago, the dynamic was much different, Stanley lamented after the latest spat Wednesday in the Finance Committee.
"What they keep forgetting is that what built Virginia and drove Virginia's economy for so many years to get us to this point where they could grow in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads textiles, tobacco, manufacturing and coal," Stanley said.
As those industries fell on hard times in past decades, so did the counties, cities and towns along Route 58 where they once thrived.
Poindexter, Stanley and other advocates say Route 58 could become a major four-lane commercial artery capable of breathing life back into those communities by extending bonding authority necessary to four-lane and straighten a stretch across "Lover's Leap Mountain" in Patrick County. It's far too narrow and winding for big rigs now. Ultimately, it won committee approval and Senate passage, but it's tied to passage of this year's comprehensive transportation funding reform legislation.
Route 58 is Virginia's longest contiguous highway, extending nearly 520 miles across parts of at least 27 localities from Virginia's westernmost tip near Middlesboro, Ky., to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach. Along the way, it intersects with Interstates 81, 77, 85, 95, 664 and 64 — never more than a few miles from the North Carolina line.
It connects many of the state's poorest communities, according to data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. In ten of the localities through which 58 passes, at least one in every five residents received food stamps in 2010. In Emporia, Danville and Martinsville, the ratio was 30 percent or more. But in affluent Virginia Beach, the rate drops to 6.7 percent.
Northern Virginia, meanwhile, outgrew its highways, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, throttled up national defense spending and created a whole new function of American government: homeland security.
In the state's largest locality, northern Virginia's Fairfax County, only 3 percent received food stamps. It's 2.4 percent in Loudoun County, 3 percent in Arlington, 5.7 percent in Alexandria, 6 percent in Prince William and, in monied Fairfax City, it was 0.0 percent.
That unchecked growth worsened already critical highway congestion that has defied state government's ability to remedy for at least a dozen years. The Texas Transportation Institute's annual Urban Mobility Report earlier this month rated Washington and its suburbs the nation's most congested area. Among failed ideas were regional transportation tax increases in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
"Yeah, they tell us 'Go it on your own,'" Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax County snorted after Wednesday's committee meeting.
"They don't know what traffic is down there. They have no concept," he said. "I have Braddock Road, a secondary road ... It carries twice the traffic of Interstate 81 — 88,000 cars a day, OK?"
Richmond lawyer and lobbyist Chris Nolen knows both sides. Route 58 brushes the southern tip of Floyd County where he grew up. He attended law school in Northern Virginia, where it took him about 45 minutes to drive less than two miles.
"I think it's very easy for people in southwest and southside Virginia not to appreciate the gridlock and traffic that actually occurs in Northern Virginia," Nolen said.
But suburbanites in Virginia's golden crescent may have just as skewed an image of poor, rural areas along Route 58, he said.
"Perhaps there's a view that it's not an area with a large populace that has industry or can bring industry when, in fact, it can," Nolen said. "It's just looking for tools to do that, and the 58 corridor is another way to move people and commerce to that area."
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
UVa. Weldon Cooper Center data: http://bit.ly/14XucgA