Three brick archways will soon soar over the entrance to the Virginia Department of Transportation's newest Victorian-style monument along Interstate 64, beckoning visitors into the domed vending area, the Internet-connected lobby . . . and the restrooms.
For $7 million, VDOT is building a state-of-the-art, 11,000-square-foot rest stop in New Kent County where drivers heading east from Richmond can take a break, ask directions and get something to eat. Made entirely of red brick, it resembles nothing so much as a smaller version of the governor's mansion in historic Williamsburg.
Officially called the New Kent Safety, Rest and Information Center, it's the second major new rest stop in the state. The first, which opened in May, was an even larger, $8 million building along Interstate 85 near North Carolina.
Both are part of a makeover of Virginia's 41 rest stops and 10 welcome centers that was proposed in 1999 by then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). At the time, Gilmore called the state's rest stops "eyesores" and a "disgrace" compared with other states' rest stops, and he said, "It's time for Virginia to spruce up and shape up and look like what we are." He proposed $6.5 million for new and upgraded stops.
But that was during the high-spending times of the late 1990s. Now, the New Kent rest stop is generating controversy for VDOT, which has been publicly struggling for the past year to pay its bills.
"This is a project left over from the days when VDOT had its priorities in different places," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D). She notes that while "travelers always appreciate rest stops, additional money is clearly needed for the road program in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia."
In fact, VDOT's own six-year plan lists 256 construction projects in Northern Virginia that each cost $7 million or less.
For that money, the state could have paid to widen Route 123 between the Capital Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road, a high-priority project that had languished for years and was just completed. Or, with the same amount of money, VDOT could pay for access improvements at the Ballston Metro station and proposed streetscape enhancements on Vienna's Maple Avenue, and still have about $1.6 million left over to expand the Interstate 95 commuter parking lot at Lorton Road.
"With the budget constraints we have now, it's obvious we could have spread some of these funds around and gotten more efficient utilization of tax dollars," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
Still, he said, "we want to put our best face forward for visitors, because tourism is a major industry in Virginia."
Transportation officials defend their decision to move forward with the rest stop project.
The building itself will cost $2.3 million, they said. Widening the ramps to and from I-64 and adding more parking will cost $3.6 million, and design and landscaping will add the rest. The federal government is picking up 90 percent of the tab, they said.
Once completed, the rest area will be more secure and will be able to handle the current volume of more than 1,000 visitors each hour, plus additional tourists expected for the 2007 commemoration of the founding of the Jamestown settlement, which is nearby. The previous rest stop, built in 1976, was designed for 1,000 people each day and had sewer problems.
"We receive a lot of complaints about rest areas, people telling us that they feel dirty. Also people worried about safety," said Jeff Caldwell, a VDOT spokesman. "That's where a significant investment is going to address some of these issues."
Caldwell said VDOT is wiring the building to the Internet, but will not install computers for travelers until a later date.
It was just a few years ago, state officials said, that Virginia was ridiculed for the dilapidated state of its rest stops -- broken sinks and water fountains, and cramped and dirty bathrooms with doors that wouldn't lock.
"The design is in keeping with the recommendations of a statewide panel that determined that rest areas should architecturally reflect a region's character," VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet wrote in the Virginian-Pilot, the Norfolk newspaper that first reported on the rest stop.
"That sounds reasonable to me, especially considering that this stretch of I-64 is regarded as the 'front door to the birthplace of America.' "