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I understand saving money, but when six of the facilities you are closing were renovated less than three years ago…

August 9, 2009, 8:40 PM

New Market rest area, one of the rest areas that was not closed.Virginia recently executed a plan to permanently close 19 rest areas in order to save money and help close a state budget shortfall. I can see closing a few rest areas, because there are admittedly some places where the rest areas are fairly close together, such as Mt. Sidney and New Market, which are 29 miles apart – most certainly the close spacing referenced in this article in The Washington Post. Now, the state is aiming for rest areas every 120 miles, or roughly two hours’ driving time.

Among the rest areas that I’m familiar with, on I-81, both Mt. Sidney (near Staunton) rest areas are now closed, as is the southbound rest area near Troutville (Botetourt County), as well as the southbound New Market rest area (northbound, pictured at right, remains open). On I-64, both Goochland County rest areas (near Richmond) are closing, and on I-66, both Manassas rest areas are closing, though due to the presence of a tourist information center on the westbound Manassas rest area, the facility remains open until mid-September. Then on I-95, both rest areas in Ladysmith are now closed, as well as both car rest areas in Dale City (truck facilities remain open at Dale City). That leaves no rest areas between Richmond and DC traveling northbound, and one southbound.

It kind of makes me glad that I now live in the DC area, rather than doing DC trips like I used to. Of the rest areas I would pass, all but one is now gone. Manassas used to be a good place to take a potty break in both directions, since there are no convenient restroom opportunities at Vienna. Then there were a number of times where the southbound New Market rest area would be a convenient place to stop and take a nap in the car, particularly if I was starting to get droopy. It was well-lighted, and there were people around even in the middle of the night, thus I considered it safe for napping. All of these are now closed or slated to close. VDOT says that availability of commercial services was a factor in deciding which rest areas to close. Mt. Sidney has Harrisonburg and Staunton nearby, and the New Market rest areas are three miles from the New Market exit, which has plenty of gas stations and fast-food restaurants nearby. The Manassas rest areas are at the edge of Northern Virginia, with oodles of places to stop and use the restroom.

However, in the case of rest areas near urban areas, like Manassas, I question the wisdom of dumping restroom-seeking travelers into these areas. In the case of Manassas, the nearest exit is Exit 47, which drops travelers onto six-lane Sudley Road. That road can be a beast at any hour, even on Sundays, and even for those local to the area, you really need to be familiar with the road in order to use it with any sort of confidence. Do we really want to drop through-traffic into these areas? Even more so for people from rural areas, many of whom are quite unfamiliar with how to handle city driving. Sudley Road used to terrify me before I got comfortable with city driving. It still bothers me, though, when trying to get to the left lane to make a turn. According to this article from The Virginian-Pilot, in New Market, trucks have actually struck buildings trying to navigate. Not good. Then in Dale City, the nearest exit to the rest areas is Potomac Mills. Do we really want to subject restroom-only traffic to Potomac Mills’ destination-shopping traffic? And what’s to stop people in cars from using Dale City’s truck-only rest area? That could cause serious safety problems, especially the way some people drive.

Then the biggest thing: of the 19 rest areas that are on the chopping block, six of them had complete renovations in 2006 – less than three years ago, according to WTOP. And I do mean complete renovations. The buildings were completely gutted, and rebuilt within the existing structures. Both Manassas rest areas got this treatment, as did both New Market rest areas. Virginia spent $3 million to renovate eleven rest areas. I want to say that a few of them didn’t reopen following renovations until early 2007. Now six of these are closing, likely permanently. Not smart. Why not just throw money directly down the drain? Especially when these facilities likely cost less to operate following renovations compared to older facilities due to newer, more efficient equipment. Among other things, the urinals in the renovated facilities are waterless.

So while I see the rationale for closing 19 rest areas, saving the state money and all, I don’t think they planned this quite well enough, considering that more than half of the renovated facilities are now being shuttered. That’s $1.5 million of your money down the toilet. Not good…

Web site: VDOT map showing which rest areas are now closed, and which will remain open, and why.

Song: Virginia Rest Area Debate Becomes Issue In Race For Governor per WHSV TV-3 in Harrisonburg

Quote: This whole process of closing rest areas just annoys me, mainly because about a third of them are practically brand new...