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Theater of the Absurd

Editorial: VDOT needs to monitor its billing policy

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Virginia Department of Transportation

The good news is that Chuck and Carolyn Westrater will not have to pay the Virginia Department of Transportation $2,440 for cutting up a tree that fell on and crushed their car. The bad news is that they got a bill in the first place.

Here is what happened: On March 7, the Westraters were driving on state Route 53, which runs through the city of Charlottesville and Fluvanna County. As they drove, the roots of a tree on adjacent private property suddenly tore out of the ground, causing the entire tree to fall and crush the Westraters’ Toyota sedan.

Flying glass from a broken windshield cut Carolyn’s forehead. A man in a car behind the couple got out and helped her husband free himself from the damaged car. A rescue squad took Carolyn to the hospital. Fortunately, her injuries were not serious.

Chuck, 80, and Carolyn, 79, counted themselves lucky. They figured they had escaped from a freaky accident with a cool tale to tell family and friends. Only a week later, their story turned from freak show to theater of the absurd with the arrival of a letter from the transportation department.

The letter said the accident had required a “response” from VDOT. “It is VDOT’s responsibility to collect for such responses,” the letter stated. It noted the Westraters would receive an invoice for what they owed as soon as the state agency calculated “response costs.” They should send the invoice to their insurance company.

The invoice that arrived totaled $2,440.36 to pay for “labor and equipment” and “guardrail damage.” This struck the Westraters as strange because there was no guardrail beside the road in the area where the tree crashed. Nevertheless, Chuck took the bill to his insurance company. An agent told him he never had heard of anything like this, but would submit the claim.

Meanwhile, theater of the absurd turned into a newspaper feature story. As it turned out, Carlos Santos, editor of the weekly Fluvanna Review newspaper, was the fellow who had helped Chuck out of his crushed car. Santos’ dispatch about the bizarre accident and subsequent bill caught the eye of Del. Rob Bell, R-Albermarle, who reached out.

Finally, Carolyn got a call from a highway department district engineer who apologized, said it was all a mistake and that the Westraters owed the state nothing. On the other hand, if it had been an actual debt, Carolyn was told, only the attorney general could have forgiven it.

As the Westraters awaited delivery of a letter confirming they are in the clear, Stacy Londrey, a manager of business functions at the Culpeper VDOT office, told The Daily Progress that what happened to the couple was “a billing error.” She said the mistake resulted from “someone’s misinterpretation of what was provided.”

The state code requires VDOT to collect the cost of repairing damage to state property or assets, as well as some cleanup and traffic control costs caused by motorists. In the Westraters’ case, Londrey continued, the uprooted tree fell from private property. No state property or assets suffered damage.

“We regret the billing error,” Londrey said. “That is never pleasant. I regret the extra stress this might have caused.”

While VDOT will review its procedures to see if they need to be “tightened,” Londrey said that happened to the Westraters was “really a training thing,” not a policy problem.

This conclusion begs further investigation. We know VDOT has its hands full maintaining 58,000 miles of roads. We also believe the agency’s employees understand they serve the public and usually succeed in that mission.

But the Westraters’ tale is one of those sagas that makes government look hidebound and bureaucratic. That is a sure way to make folks forget they generally drive on highways and byways that are solid and safe.

And we can’t quite shake the feeling that without Santos’ journalistic instinct and Bell’s constituent service, the Westraters’ checkbook — or at least their insurance company — easily could have suffered a head-on collision with state policy.

— The Charlottesville Daily Progress

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