OOIDA keeps pressure on Virginia rest area closures

| Monday, July 20, 2009

Nearly half of the rest areas in Virginia are scheduled to be shuttered tomorrow, Tuesday, July 21 – which is certain to be a “recipe for disaster.”

On Friday, July 17, OOIDA sent out an information alert to its Virginia members, urging them to contact their state lawmakers, as well as Gov. Tim Kaine, about the importance of keeping the rest areas open.

“While the decision to close certain rest areas has been made by the Virginia Department of Transportation, we believe that with enough pressure, it can be reversed,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer.

Also on Friday, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, proposed an amendment, which failed, to the House Transportation Appropriations Bill for 2010. The amendment would have lifted the federal law banning commercialization in an attempt to keep the rest areas open.

Spencer said he applauds Wolf’s efforts at both the federal and state levels, which shows his strong commitment to highway safety for truckers, as well as motorists, who pass through his home state of Virginia. 

In a letter to Gov. Kaine, Wolf asked him to rethink “Virginia’s decision to close rest stops on interstate highways throughout the state.”

“Long-haul truck drivers are regulated on the number of hours they are supposed to drive before taking specific rest breaks,” Wolf wrote. “I worry to think that with fewer rest stops in Virginia, fatigued truckers may be forced to drive additional miles to find a place to stop for their required breaks. That scenario sets up a recipe for disaster.”

Besides opposition to closing the rest areas from OOIDA and Rep. Wolf, AAA Mid-Atlantic, which has more than 830,000 members in Virginia, is also calling on Gov. Kaine to “reconsider the decision and keep the rest stops open.”

“We urge you to reverse VDOT’s pending closures that are scheduled to start next week,” wrote Margaret M. Meade, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, in the letter Friday.

“That said, the $9 million expected to be saved by closing these rest areas must be weighed against the costs in lives and injuries from highway crashes that result from overly tired motorists who unwisely choose to keep driving because of closed rest areas.”

While Spencer said OOIDA supports Wolf’s efforts to pursue commercialization as a way to keep these rest areas open and offset the state’s expenses in maintaining the sites, one group doesn’t share this sentiment.

A coalition, called the Partnership to Save Highway Communities, has formed to encourage lawmakers to maintain the federal ban that prohibits commercialization, which could keep Virginia’s rest areas and vital truck parking open. The rest of Virginia’s rest areas are slated for possible closure by 2011 if the commercialization ban is not lifted.

Besides the National Association of Truck Stop Owners – or Natso – which opposes commercialization efforts, many national fast-food franchisee associations, including Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, among others, have signed up as well.

“The Partnership to Save Highway Communities believes this is a shortsighted approach that ultimately will destroy thousands of businesses located off the Interstate exit ramps,” according to their release.

However, OOIDA’s Spencer said that while some of the big players may oppose commercialization, this might be the perfect opportunity for truly small businesses to step in and provide a service that truckers, motorists and struggling states all need.

“Some businesses who ignore truckers’ and the motoring community’s desire for greater access to facilities along the interstates are devoid of reality,” Spencer said. “They are ignoring the tremendous growth opportunities that commercialization could provide. This may be an area where truly small businesses can stand out.”

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer