W HEN THE Stafford County Board of Supervisors votes today to advance its proposed roads bond referendum, it will be a bittersweet moment indeed. The vote will take place less than seven weeks after Helen Wang lost her life as she attempted to turn onto Kellogg Mill Road from the Abel Lake boat ramp’s parking area.
The accident happened May 16. Helen turned 17 years old that day. And almost from the moment it occurred, word reverberated across Stafford County that Helen’s death would not be in vain.
Almost immediately, a group called Changing Stafford Roads was organized by local students determined to prevent future tragedies. The group has been instrumental in hastening the Board of Supervisors’ arrival at today’s vote.
Having completed a three-year study of county roads last fall, the board knows where the most treacherous stretches are and can target funds from the bond sales where improvements are needed most. The student group is already asking why Stefaniga Road, one of the county’s more notorious thoroughfares, is not on the project list.
Stafford, like so many other localities, has suffered through these tragedies before. To name a few, there was Kyle Morgan, 16, a Mountain View High School student killed in a crash on Poplar Road on March 16, 2018. There was Forrest Peterson, 17, a Brooke Point High School student who died in a crash on Brooke Road on Sept. 24, 2010.
On Jan. 23, 2004, the victim was Emily Dudenhefer, a Colonial Forge High School student who died in an accident on Mountain View Road, two days before her 18th birthday. Her father is current Stafford Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer, who is, as one might expect, a strong advocate for improving Stafford’s roads.
There is nothing Stafford County can do to save the lives that have already been lost, but it can and should use the memory of these young people as motivation to take action to prevent future accidents.
Stafford officials have known for a long time that the county’s secondary roads are largely holdovers from a bygone era. Narrow strips of asphalt without shoulders that twist and turn through areas of heavy population growth are a recipe for disaster. That’s especially true when young, inexperienced drivers are behind the wheel.
If the supervisors vote as they are expected to today, they will send a $50 million road bond referendum to Stafford Circuit Court, which should them order it placed on November’s ballot.
Once the measure passes—and we strongly urge Stafford voters to approve it—the county will be able to redouble its efforts to improve its most dangerous roads. Unlike major road projects that are funded largely through the Virginia Department of Transportation, these local bond funds will be dedicated to fixing Stafford’s long-neglected secondary roads.
As Dudenhefer said at the release of the county roads report last fall, VDOT funding doesn’t make a “whiff of a difference” to Stafford’s secondary roads. “If we don’t do it, it’s just not going to ever happen.”
Stafford has been down this road before, with a $70 million roads bond measure in 2008 from which only $24 million in bonds were sold, and only $16.4 million was spent. That may have limited the debt retirement burden to the county taxpayers, but it hardly accomplishes what the county set out to do with the bond in the first place. If the new bond referendum passes, the county should be prepared to invest it as intended and save lives.
In some cases—as in the overgrown trees and vegetation cited as contributors in Helen Wang’s accident—the county can take immediate action at minimal cost to improve driver sight lines. It may already know where some problem spots are, and should encourage motorists to alert county officials to others.
The momentum already gathered in this campaign to improve Stafford roads is impressive. Another positive result would be for localities that anticipate future growth to prepare their roads for the inevitable collision of rural and suburban lifestyles that Stafford is experiencing now.
The price may well be paid in lives saved.