By Clarissa Kell-Holland
The battle in Virginia to keep 25 rest areas open can only be described as complicated.
After spending nearly $20 million in the past few years to revamp some of its rest areas, even renaming them as “safety rest areas,” the Virginia Department of Transportation surprised the trucking community in February by announcing plans to shutter more than half of them.
Since VDOT’s announcement, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents more than 160,000 small-business truckers, has been urging its members to contact VDOT and also their lawmakers about the safety impact this could have if the rest areas are closed.
OOIDA members opposing the potential closures also turned out in full force to a series of meetings VDOT hosted around the state.
OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said that closing these rest areas would be detrimental for truckers and motorists alike. He also said that their proposal completely flies in the face of Virginia’s “pledge” to increase highway safety.
“Every group concerned with highway safety should be outraged when it comes to shutting down rest areas that are vital to professional truck drivers and to every highway user,” Spencer told Land Line.
VDOT officials cite plummeting transportation revenue as the main reason for the proposed closure of more than half of the state’s rest areas.
They say that closing the rest areas could save the agency an estimated $12 million per year in maintenance costs at a time when transportation revenue is expected to be down an estimated $2.6 billion over the next six years.
VDOT’s announcement has created a rare alliance of sorts among two of the largest trucking associations – OOIDA and the American Trucking Associations – known more for disagreeing than agreeing on most things trucking related.
“Clearly, it should outrage everyone involved in the truck transportation industry to do everything possible to ensure that drivers have safe and secure places to stop, to rest and to sleep,” Spencer said.
In March, ATA President Bill Graves sent a letter to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine urging him to pursue all fiscal avenues in an effort to keep the rest areas open.
Clayton Boyce, ATA vice president of public affairs and press secretary, said ATA reacted to VDOT’s proposal with the letter after hearing from their members who own trucking companies that are either based in Virginia or that have trucks that run through the state.
Natso says no way
Until recently, another player in the trucking arena – Natso Inc., a national trade association that represents travel plazas and truck stop owners – was also on the same side as OOIDA and ATA on VDOT’s proposal.
That was until the Commonwealth Transportation Board passed a resolution in mid-March to request that the Federal Highway Administration allow commercialization of some of its rest areas. This would allow a fast food company to come in and take over the financial responsibilities for maintaining some of the rest areas.
Natso issued a press release opposing the resolution, stating that commercializing the rest areas would give some businesses an unfair advantage over the members Natso represents.
“This board’s resolution is not only bad policy; it is also bad math,” Natso President and CEO Lisa Mullings said in the release. “In an apparent effort to save 412 rest area parking spaces, the plan would threaten thousands of spaces at businesses directly off the highway.”
Currently, federal law prohibits rest areas on the Interstate Highway System built after 1960 from offering commercial services like food and fuel.
OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said if Natso truly supported “highway safety” they would not use “scare tactics” by sending out a press release stating that thousands of Virginians may lose their jobs if rest areas are commercialized.
“This is such a peculiar statement coming from an organization that depends on the trucking industry for its own livelihood,” Rajkovacz told Land Line. “For an affiliated industry that is so dependent on the goodwill from truckers, Natso is all about self economic interest over highway safety.”
Holly Alfano, vice president of government affairs for Natso, said that while they originally supported keeping the rest areas open in Virginia, their support changed when the concept of commercialization was introduced.
Alfano said Natso members just won’t be able to compete with businesses allowed to open on the interstate rights-of-way. According to a Natso presentation in 2006 on why it opposes commercialized rest areas, it would create a “monopoly on the shoulder of the highways.”
In that same presentation, however, Natso stated that its members provide 90 percent of the truck parking on the nation’s highways. They stated that it is “important we protect this important resource.”
Alfano said while their members may provide 90 percent of the truck parking, commercialization would make their members’ businesses “more vulnerable.”
Land Line conducted a truck parking study based on VDOT’s data. VDOT’s proposal to close rest areas is based on their close proximity to commercial facilities. However, Land Line found that at least 18 of the facilities near the rest areas to be closed don’t offer truck parking. And at least 12 of the facilities aren’t open 24 hours a day for truckers needing fuel and rest.
However, when asked if Natso would oppose commercialization if they knew the businesses going in at the rest area sites were their own members, Alfano had no response.
The ATA, once in favor of rest area commercialization, reversed its position, siding with Natso on the issue in 2003 after Graves took over as ATA president.
ATA’s Boyce said Graves planned to host a staff meeting “because it is a unique situation” on whether they support the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s petition to the FHWA to allow rest area commercialization as a potential way to save rest areas in Virginia.
No rest for the weary
OOIDA has tangled with Natso over the truck parking issue before. Natso’s position is there is “no nationwide truck parking shortage,” However, OOIDA and the truckers it represents disagree.
“To say there is not a parking shortage for drivers is complete BS,” Rajkovacz said.
In 2004, Natso succeeded in removing language from the federal highway reauthorization bill, which would have established a pilot program to build additional truck parking along interstate right of ways and which could have created valuable truck parking spaces.
However, Alfano said Natso doesn’t “try to block any efforts to increase truck parking.”
“We don’t try to block any efforts to increase truck parking. We want to see more of it. It’s good for the trucking industry, and what’s good for the trucking industry is good for us,” Alfano said.
Melissa Theriault-Rohan, associate director of government affairs for OOIDA, has met with state and federal lawmakers on the growing national truck parking problem.
“Increasing the amount of available and safe truck parking is a priority, and OOIDA will continue to work with lawmakers on behalf of its members,” she said.
Theriault-Rohan said safety concerns should trump financial ones when it comes to doing what is best to promote highway safety.
“In any industry, across the board, if you are a good steward in the industry you work, you are highly rewarded for it,” Theriault-Rohan said. “Natso can’t say that they are good stewards. What have they done to contribute to promoting safety in the industry that they profit from?” LL
New clerk Kerry Evans-Spillman contributed to this report.