July 7, 2010
Barricades no longer block the entrances to some of the Valley's rest areas, but there's still a lot of attention being paid to the issue of funding them. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced a series of steps he thinks will bring down the cost of running the rest areas.
Under the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine (D), 19 rest areas were closed last summer in an effort to save several million dollars annually. Among the 19 were three in the Valley. Those included both rest areas near mile marker 232 on Interstate 81 in Augusta County and the rest area on the northbound side of I-81 south of New Market.
The rest areas all reopened in phases in late winter and early spring.
Kevin Kamps works for an environmental organization and often drives through Virginia. He was concerned when the rest areas closed.
"People need to rest pretty often to drive safely. And, one of the issues that concerns me the most on the roads is [that] there's all kinds of hazardous cargoes, toxic chemicals, radioactive waste," says Kamps.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is using maintenance money to keep the rest areas open while slashing funding for other projects.
"We would save that seven-and-a-half million dollars out of our other maintenance funding and could use it to pave roads or to put up guardrail," says Jeff Caldwell, a spokesperson for VDOT.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) has long had concerns about VDOT spending.
"Historically, we've been operating at the ridiculously high price of about $500,000 per rest area per year. That makes absolutely no sense," says Obenshain.
McDonnell plans to cut costs in contracts with private companies that run 38 rest areas. Those contracts are set to expire in December 2010.
McDonnell is also looking to get businesses to advertise and maybe sell goods at rest areas beyond what drivers see in vending machines.
Another step involves using transportation enhancement grants that could place "commercial regional tourist/welcome centers at interchanges," according to a press release from the governor's office.
Del. Steve Landes (R-Weyers Cave) says a plan is needed since VDOT could keep losing money. In recent years, the department has cut a combined $4.6 billion.
"If the governor looks at the possibility of not having funds to keep the rest stops open, I think that's going to be a high priority. We're not at that point yet, but later on this year we could be," says Landes.
A council with ties to VDOT and the University of Virginia is also researching unique funding options that aren't being used. The group is looking at how ideas to save would mesh with state and federal laws related to the interstates.
That research project is supposed to be done by the end of November.