Safety, not economic concerns, should be VDOT’s first priority

| 3/27/2009

In Virginia, 25 rest areas and the valuable parking spots they provide for the motoring public are on the endangered list as the Virginia Department of Transportation looks for ways to cut costs.

At a public meeting in Richmond on March 26, more than 75 people, including several truckers, expressed their concern about the rest area closure proposal. While VDOT officials estimate they can save $12 million from its budget by cutting the rest areas and other maintenance activities, OOIDA officials and others in the transportation industry argue it will compromise highway safety by forcing tired truckers and motorists to be on the road.

One OOIDA member, Paul Yurkovac, who lives in Virginia, told VDOT officials at the meeting that closing the rest area would have a “profound impact on safety.”

“The bottom line is that a reduction in available facilities places an increased number of tired, and therefore dangerous, motorists and commercial drivers on the road,” he said.

While several hundred people, including a large number of OOIDA members, have attended these meetings and have spoken out against the proposal, VDOT Chief of Communications Jeff Caldwell said there are “difficult choices” to be made on proposed budget cuts.

“We have not yet finalized these decisions. That is why we are currently gathering public input to help us hear comments before we finalize our choices; however, it does indeed come down to money,” he told Land Line Magazine on Friday, March 27. “We have to balance our budget … so we have to find areas within our business to cut.”

VDOT estimates its planned revenues for the next six years will be down by as much as $2.6 billion. According to a Virginia Association of Counties article on the state’s economic woes last fall, VDOT has already transferred “$385 million in the current year from construction to maintenance.”

And according to the article, VDOT must “fulfill its annual maintenance activities before spending dollars on new construction.

“The annual transfer of construction funding to support maintenance activities reduced available dollars to the Commonwealth, as well as counties, cities and towns,” the Virginia Association of Counties article said.

In 2006, VDOT reconstructed 11 safety rest areas and completely rebuilt three more. Of the 11 refurbished rest areas, the agency’s plan would close down eight of them. Caldwell said the three new rest areas are not on the chopping block.

“If we do decide to close fewer rest areas than initially proposed, we will have to cut other services or programs to make up the difference,” he said.

VDOT Commissioner David Ekern said maintenance budget reductions, such as closing the rest areas, are necessary to make up for declining revenues.

In a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Ekern said at the meeting he has to “live in today’s world, and in today’s world I’ve got to find $50 million in service reductions.”

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz said the simple answer to VDOT’s dilemma is to spend less money paving a “few miles of road” and to focus more on highway safety like providing “safe havens” for truckers and motorists.

“Their (VDOT’s) first priority should be about ensuring highway safety for the entire motoring public, not about saving money,” he told Land Line Magazine a day after the public meeting in Richmond. “Their attitude that this is just a cost-saving measure shows callous disregard for highway safety.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer