Wheeled Over 

How one disabled Henrico County man is working to make Brook Road safer for the handicapped.

click to enlarge news03_wheelchair_100.jpg

Brian Montgomery doesn't like to take no for an answer. And he sure doesn't take it sitting down.

Wheelchair-bound, Montgomery has battled the Virginia Department of Transportation — and occasionally his Henrico County government allies — for more than five years, seeking handicap-accessibility improvements to Brook Road near his St. Joseph's Villa home. For years, he says, the intersection has been dangerous for many of the disabled residents who live nearby.

It's not so much that Montgomery's stretch of Brook Road is more dangerous to the wheelchair-bound. It's simply that with approximately 60 handicapped people living in such close proximity to a major roadway and crossing it as part of their daily errands, chances of them meeting with a careless or distracted driver are much higher than on a typical stretch of road.

This year Montgomery just might see his lobbying efforts pay off.

Montgomery, who also helped fellow Brook Road-area residents lead a charge against the since-vanquished Gold City Showgirls strip club, got word last month that Henrico's Board of Supervisors had approved $1 million toward the Brook Road project. He says he has reason to believe matching state funding isn't far behind.

"He's a profile in courage — he doesn't give up," Kathleen Burke Barrett, chief executive at St. Joseph's Villa, says of Montgomery, who resides in the Hollybrook independent living apartments on St. Joseph's grounds. Barrett says she's marveled at the work Montgomery has done lobbying officials, including wheeling up to Gov. Tim Kaine during an event at the Villa to present his case.

"He's tenacious, and he's a wonderful citizen," Burke says. "He feels like he's an advocate for everyone at Hollybrook who can't take as active a role as he can. When Gov. Kaine was leaving, he made sure he came over and said goodbye to Brian — they'd bonded."

Kaine's friendship aside, Montgomery is hopeful.

"The [state] application is going through; we just have to see what happens," says Montgomery, who himself was hit by a car while crossing Brook Road in 2000. "It tore up my chair. If I didn't duck my chin down in my chest, it would have broke my neck."

Crossing busy Brook Road is a frequent errand for Hollybrook's residents, many of whom are wheelchair-bound by spinal or head injuries. Directly across Brook is Wal-Mart and a Kroger grocery store, as well as a convenience store, all frequented by Montgomery's neighbors. Many residents have been hit by drivers over the years, Montgomery says, noting the most recent major improvements to the road were done in the 1940s.

Some sidewalk and crosswalk signal improvements were added at the Brook and Wilkinson roads intersection a few years ago.

Included in the current hoped-for project, should it receive the VDOT funding component, are an additional vehicle lane on Brook Road between Parham Road and Villa Park Drive, lighting enhancements and sidewalks on the west side of Brook, and drainage improvements. The east side of Brook Road already has sidewalks.

Any improvements would be welcome, Barrett says. Residents of the Hollybrook apartments cross busy Brook Road day and night. Lighting and sidewalk improvements would increase visibility for drivers and minimize risky crossings by residents.

St. Joseph's Villa has already promised to give necessary easements to VDOT for the project, largely as a result of Montgomery's efforts. Because Brook Road is state-maintained, VDOT would undertake the road project.

Montgomery has tasted defeat before. In 2005, the Henrico board allocated nearly $500,000 toward the project, but the matching funds from VDOT failed to materialize because of transportation shortfalls. The state granted only 75 percent of the needed matching funds.

Since then, the project's estimated cost has risen from about $1 million to close to $1.7 million.

"In 2005, they really had no money in the tills to do it," says Henrico County transportation development engineer Todd Eure. He says he has higher hopes for this year, especially because the county is coming through with such a large portion of the required funds — and the state is still on the hook for the roughly $350,000 it pledged in 2005. All that's needed now from the state is about $450,000, he says.

"I'm not going to tell you it's a done deal," Eure says, but with a proponent like Montgomery, it's hard to be pessimistic. "He's very determined to get this project done," Eure says. "He's been very consistent and persistent in not letting people forget about it."

For his part, Montgomery is too busy concentrating on securing the project's funding to bask in praise.

"I'm disabled — I've been disabled all my life," Montgomery says, "and I've got 60 other residents I've got to think about who have to go across the street." S

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