Friday, August 7, 2009
THE ORANGE cones say it all. Eighteen of Virginia's rest stops are closed for business, with one more, near Manassas, to follow next month. The targeted sites, clean facilities that offer tired drivers a rest on long treks along Interstates 81 and 95 and other state thoroughfares, were costing $9 million to maintain annually, and given Virginia's straitened transportation budget, that was too much. Their entrance ramps are blocked, their vending machines are being torn out and the message to drivers is clear: Go elsewhere.
The shutdowns are just one manifestation of Virginia's larger transit woes. Unless new funding is found, over the next six years the state's transportation system must sustain $2.6 billion worth of cuts, which will mean slashing services and laying off thousands of employees. For now, it is the rest stops that are prompting public outrage. Proponents of the stops make a strong case: Driving without rest can be dangerous; it's unfair to ask restaurant owners to accommodate the restroom needs of hundreds more travelers; so many "closed" signs may send a negative message to Virginia visitors, especially during summer months, when tourism flourishes.
Virginia's two gubernatorial candidates have raced to make promises. Republican Robert F. McDonnell says that he will restore the stops within 90 days of taking office; Democrat R. Creigh Deeds says 60 days. Both candidates neglect the larger problem. Complaining that Virginia's transportation budget cuts will close rest stops is like complaining that destroying the planet will make life difficult for koalas. It's true, but it misses the point.
Drivers who are concerned about the loss of their favorite places to stop should contemplate the more harmful effects of Virginia's transportation deficits, ranging from unmowed median strips that impair visibility to delays on all but the most necessary repairs and halts to construction projects that could ease commutes. In the larger scheme of Virginia's budget, $9 million to reopen rest stops will be easy to find, but $2.6 billion for transportation will not be. The rest stop closures must inspire Virginia's voters to look for another stop -- at the polls this fall, where they must choose candidates who will tackle the larger transportation funding problem.