Virginia Prepares to Close Highway Rest Areas

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; B01

Virginia's major roadways will become a less hospitable place in two weeks when the cash-strapped state closes 18 rest stops, including those in Dale City and Ladysmith.

The closings will leave the long stretch of Interstate 95 between Richmond and Washington without a public toilet for northbound drivers. This is a portion of highway that can be measured in miles -- 105.99 miles, to be precise -- but cognoscenti of traffic mayhem generally prefer to use a watch. On a bad day, it can take hours of crawling, and as of July 21, northbound drivers will not have a rest stop to, well, rest in, or whatever else they might need to do.

"We looked at the distance between our rest stops and found we had them as close as 29 miles," said Jeffrey Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "We decided we'd shoot for about 120 miles, or about two hours, between rest stops."

This will save the state agency $9 million against its $2.6 billion revenue shortfall.

There is no firm agreement on proper spacing for rest stops, but some would argue that there are established standards. Northerners, in particular, might contend that the standards have been set by two highways that have been around long enough to be called turnpikes.

You can't travel more than 20 miles on the New Jersey Turnpike without a rest stop beckoning. The Pennsylvania Turnpike's longest no-go stretch is less than 70 miles, and 25 to 35 miles is about the norm.

Caldwell will tell you that that is all well and good, but those are mid-20th-century highways, and these are modern times. Although Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) might no longer be able to afford you a bathroom, Ronald McDonald can.

"Many of these rest stops were set up in the 1950s and '60s, when Virginia was a much more rural state," Caldwell explained. "One of the criteria we used in closing facilities was whether they were in an urban area, where there were McDonald's and gas stations at the interchanges."

The pattern of rest stops along I-95 in Maryland appears to hold to that burger-and-a-bathroom theory. All three of the Maryland House rest stops are in the more rural part of the state north of Baltimore.

Notices telling travelers of the impending closings in Virginia went up Monday at the 18 rest stops that will close in two weeks. Another rest stop, on Interstate 66 in Manassas, doubles as a welcome center for tourists, so its closing will be delayed until Sept. 16, when most of the tourists have gone home. One of the state's other welcome center rest stops, on southbound I-95 in Fredericksburg, will remain open.

Although some rest stops will be open to truckers only (and, no, an SUV is not a truck), the state will continue to maintain 19 open to all drivers.

Caldwell said the state held a series of public hearings on the proposal to close the stops and ultimately decided not to shutter five that had been slated for closing.

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