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Don’t Shut Rest Areas, Lease Them!

Why does it take a free fall in our economy for our state government to cut spending and improve efficiency? With a budget of $38 billion a year for the Commonwealth of Virginia we should act in a business-like manner as a matter of course, instead we are just now tightening in some areas that should have been done as part of normal practice. How we are tightening raises some question, though, such as with the proposal to close the rest stops along our interstate roads. This action does not make a lot of sense. The state should be catering to and accommodating tourists and travelers in the Commonwealth by showing our hospitality.

There is a way to handle this problem that makes more sense, especially from a business perspective. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) should lease out these facilities to the private sector so they may bring in businesses such as McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell or other fast food operations. We can then move from maintaining rest rooms, mowing grass and maintaining buildings to actually receiving income from the leasing operation of these facilities. The existing facilities would benefit the lessees because they would not have to build restrooms but could build around them. The lessees would be responsible for maintaining the property and restrooms which would take a financial burden off the state. VDOT stated in one of its public hearings that by closing 25 of the 41 rest stops in the state, they would save $12 million. Why not lease all 41 locations and save $20 million and in addition gain the annual lease revenue?

This is being done in other areas already; there is no reason it can’t be done in Virginia as well. The New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida turnpikes have already moved ahead with this approach and are currently providing great service. VDOT has implied that the federal government would not allow us to do this in Virginia.  Why? If these four states can do it why can’t Virginia? We need to stop making excuses and work harder for good solutions.

The benefits of leasing, as opposed to closing, our rest stop areas are twofold. First, it would allow us to continue providing service to our traveling public and secondly, it would present an area for truck drivers to rest on their trips, thus increasing safety and improving the flow of traffic. This is a win/win situation. It is an area where the state can cut costs, save taxpayers dollars and provide a service that is necessary to improve our economy and better enhance service to tourists and travelers.

There are at least two additional areas in VDOT where savings can result. First, the state is discussing closing down some residency offices throughout the state. Instead of closing those offices, which would cause VDOT employees to travel longer distances to provide services, we should turn their operation over to localities. That would allow the local governments to consolidate their equipment and operations and give them the opportunity to take over other operations from VDOT. Since the state has allocated and identified certain funds for road maintenance, these funds should be sent to the localities for them to contract with local individuals for snow removal, mowing and other necessary operations including road maintenance and repairs.

An advantage in this approach would be providing local contractors work on projects in their community and building the local economy as well as allowing the localities more flexibility in how they contract their services. In localities where this has been done, it has provided efficiency and savings greater than the state was able to accomplish for road repairs and construction.

The second is something that sometimes slips by because as citizens we don’t know how VDOT establishes its priorities for expenditures. VDOT replaces fence along divided highways at their expense at a current cost of about $32,000 per mile. This is done on a regular cycle instead of on as needed basis. But the real question should be why are we doing it at all? Fencing at a five foot height does not stop deer from jumping into the road. In addition, in areas that livestock is fenced in, the farmer should incur or share the cost to make repairs since that is the requirement on secondary roads. They have replaced fence along Interstate 81 and State Route 211 that was still in good condition, only because of their time table and the fact they had funds in that category. This change can also result in millions of dollars in annual savings.

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