Economic concerns seem to outweigh safety in VDOT budget balancing

| 3/17/2009

While the hundreds of public comments on the proposed budget cuts have been “valuable,” Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner David Ekern said the final decision comes down to money.

“These meetings are really important to us, but at the end of the day, like local government, we have to balance our budget,” Ekern told WVEC-TV, an ABC affiliate.

VDOT has proposed the closure of 25 of its 41 rest areas in an effort to save $12 million from its budget, which isn’t sitting well with truckers and some state lawmakers.

This comes after VDOT embarked on a $20 million effort in 2006 to reconstruct 11 safety rest areas and completely rebuilt three more. Of the 11 refurbished rest areas, the new VDOT proposal would close down eight of them.

All three of the new rest areas would be kept open under the VDOT plan, because they are an “economic benefit to (the) Commonwealth.”

OOIDA member Paul Yurkovac spoke at the meeting in Norfolk on Monday, March 16, and urged VDOT officials to consider the safety impact that closing more than half of their rest areas would have on truckers and motorists who rely on the facilities to take a break.

“I asked them to consider the underlying safety implications these rest area closures could have if truckers have nowhere to rest and are forced back onto the interstates,” he told Land Line Magazine recently.

“I know the state is looking to save a couple of bucks now. But what could this cost the state in lost revenue in the future because there isn’t a safe place to rest, which causes an accident, which closes the interstate, which brings commerce to a stop. What then?” Yurkovac asked.

VDOT Chief of Communications Jeff Caldwell told Land Line they haven’t yet figured up what it will cost the agency to barricade and close up the rest areas, if the plan is approved.

“It will depend upon the final decisions about which sites we ultimately close,” he said. “As you know, we have not yet finalized our plan.”

The lack of truck parking is a growing problem around the country as more states look to close their rest areas as a way to save money. Virginia has a two-hour maximum at rest areas in the state, which doesn’t allow truckers to take their full 10-hour break as required by federal law.

A petition is being circulated by the family of Jason Rivenburg, a 35-year-old trucker from Fultonham, NY, who was fatally shot while parked at an abandoned gas station off Interstate 26, south of Columbus, SC.

Rivenburg’s family met recently with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, about the petition they are circulating to push for legislation to address the growing truck parking problem. Click here if you would like to sign the petition.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer