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Revamp may be rest-stop solution
Could Virginia join Maryland and privatize rest areas?

 Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 3/29/2009


Driving through Maryland on Interstate 95 recently, Mary Lee Carter of Spotsylvania County stopped at a rest area.

There were restrooms, of course, but she was surprised to see restaurants, gas stations, tourism kiosks, a picnic area and vendors selling sunglasses.

"It was wonderful," said Carter, a former Spotsylvania supervisor.

"One stop certainly saves time on the road. It gives families an opportunity to have something to eat, something to drink, and to take care of the necessities," Carter said.

Why don't we have this in Virginia? Carter wondered.

The answer is federal law, and the prohibition is getting renewed attention in Virginia as budget cuts force the Virginia Department of Transportation to consider closing 25 of the state's 41 rest areas as soon as July, which is the peak vacation season.

One of the rest areas slated to close is in Caroline County on I-95.

Since the news broke, numerous residents and elected officials have suggested that VDOT turn the rest areas into some form of public-private partnership, letting revenue from the sale of gas, food and drink pay to keep the rest areas open.

But the barrier is not VDOT. It is Congress.

VDOT has supported commercializing rest areas long before the current budget crunch.

So far, VDOT has been unsuccessful at finding a way around the federal ban.

Congress needs to change federal law or offer some form of special waiver for Virginia, given its budget difficulties, said Jeff Caldwell, VDOT spokesman.

"That's in their purview, but it's something they have to decide," Caldwell said.

Today, the only food and drink sold at Virginia rest areas comes from vending machines.

That's the design of the Federal Highway Administration. Federal law prevents the public from being charged for goods or services at safety rest areas on the federal interstate system, although the law makes an exception for vending machines and telephones.

Other states have gotten around the ban by locating commercialized rest areas on toll roads. Others were allowed to keep commercialized rest areas open because they existed before the federal ban was passed.

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The Virginia Department of Transportation will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Caroline County Community Center at 17202 Richmond Turnpike in Milford.

The proposed rest-area closures will be addressed, among other topics.

After a presentation by VDOT Commissioner David Ekern, the hearing will be opened to public comment.