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Back in July, I lamented the closure of many Virginia rest stops as a cost saving measure for the state government.  Earlier today, I received word via Facebook from State Senator Steve Martin that they will be reopening soon.

We will have the welcome centers opened in less then 3 months, though I understand the Kaine admin had the toilets removed and physically taken elsewhere. I called Tim Kaine early last Spring suggesting private sector sponsorship to keep them open. His rep replied that it was a good idea, but then rejected it. I called… The Retail Merchants and Bob McDonnell and they embraced it. Such sponsorship may not be needed.

Nothing said “get out of my state” quite like those boarded up rest stops.  Thank you Senator Martin and your fellow levelheaded legislators for restoring these important features along our interstate system.  Even though the economy may not have fully recovered yet, I’m glad to see our sense of hospitality and common decency has.

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Let me start with a personal note. You may be wondering why I haven’t been updating as often as I normally do. Well…as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m still on the hunt for a new job. With my last days at my present job looming in the not too distant future, I’ve been devoting huge chunks of my free time to looking for my next opportunity. The prospect of unemployment, especially in our present economy is grim indeed. Once this present unpleasantness is settled, I promise to update regularly again. Ah, but enough about that…on to a post!

Whenever you enter Virginia, you are always greeted with a sign welcoming you to the state as well as one of our state-run rest areas. These rest areas not only provide needed restrooms, but also vending machines, and grassy patches with tables for picnicking. They aren’t limited to merely a handful of places, but they are spread throughout our interstate system…or at least they used to be. With the massive budget shortfalls, these examples of southern hospitality have been drastically scaled back as of late and will now disappear completely.

This morning, I received an email from my State Senator, Mark Obenshain (R-26) concerning this situation. He writes,

—– || Rest Areas, R.I.P. || —–

They are among the most literal signs of Virginia’s ongoing budget crisis, and if you’ve pulled off the interstate at a rest area lately, perhaps you’ve seen one: within the last two weeks, signs went up at eighteen rest areas across the Commonwealth announcing their imminent closure. These rest areas will officially shut down at midnight tonight – just as many motorists and truckers are looking for a place to stop for a break.

Some will see in these newly barricaded entrances a grim commentary on the Commonwealth’s openness to tourism, travel, and commerce. Shuttering these rest areas makes those long stretches along our interstates less inviting to those contributing to Virginia’s billion dollar tourism industry. As one op-ed columnist observed, a visitor to Virginia might soon tell friends and family that the Blue Ridge Mountains are spectacular, but, on the flip side of the ledger, Virginia closed all the restrooms.

But I have a still more pressing and immediate concern: as many as twenty percent of all highway accidents are caused by “drowsy driving,” and eliminating places to pull off, stretch one’s legs, or use the restrooms may sometimes be more than inconvenience. It rises, at times, to the level of a safety concern.

Virginia’s budget is a mess; there’s no getting around that. Cuts are unavoidable, and no department or agency is immune. Eliminating nineteen rest areas – eighteen on July 21 and another in September – to save a mere $9 million is, however, reckless and unnecessary.

As I have long pointed out, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) are no strangers to pork-barrel and wasteful spending. Scrapping plans for a single public rail pilot project, for instance, could fund keeping these nineteen rest areas open for another three years.

Several decades ago, a new term entered the political lexicon: the Washington Monument Strategy. Year after year, Congress would call upon the National Park Service to find ways to operate more efficiently, and invariably the response would be that if they had to cut one more penny, they would have no choice but to close the Washington Monument. Something very similar seems to be taking place here: ordered to make cuts, VDOT has responded by making the most painful and public cuts they can get away with in a game of brinksmanship in which Virginia’s motorists are unfortunately cast as mere pawns.

Under federal law drafted in, and more appropriate to, a much earlier era, we do not have the option of commercializing or privatizing our rest areas to make them profitable or at least less fiscally burdensome. Sadly, last week Congressman Frank Wolfe’s efforts to change that federal law were rejected with speed seldom seen in the halls of Congress — speed seemingly reserved for “stimulus” bills, bailouts, and possibly now for the nationalization of our healthcare system.

We do, however, have the option of cutting elsewhere. Delegate Todd Gilbert and I have called for an outside performance audit of VDOT which could identify far better targets for elimination.

The barricades are going up tomorrow, but it didn’t have to be this way: with a little prudence and an eye toward eliminating needless expenditures, we could have recouped this cost and far more.

Don’t let anyone tell you that this was unavoidable: there were always other options. Funds are tight, and painful cuts will continue to be necessary across the board, but the closure of these nineteen rest areas became a foregone conclusion because those who could have charted a different course chose to do nothing.

That’s not a legacy I would want.

With best regards,
Mark D. Obenshain
Virginia State Senator

Nor would I Senator Obenshain…nor would I. Once the economy turns around, I hope these rest areas will once again reopen.

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