Archive for July, 2009

Virginia’s Priorities Out of Whack

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Anyone who manages a budget knows that how you spend your cash is all a matter of priorities.

The Commonwealth of Virginia would have us believe that it was unable to find $9 million – the cost to pave just one-half mile of Interstate – in the state transportation budget to keep 19 of its 42 rest areas open.

But a review of budgetary spending clearly shows that Virginia consciously decided that funding those rest areas simply wasn’t a priority.

According to Virginia’s stimulus website, Virginia was awarded $4.8 billion from the $787 billion stimulus passed by Congress in February. Of those funds, Virginia allocated $1 billion for state infrastructure projects, including $123 million for highway projects.

Other states like Texas, in turn, see the value in putting stimulus funds toward new and enhanced rest areas.

The Dallas Morning News reported this week that Texas plans to bid contracts worth $30 million to expand and improve its highway rest areas before year’s end. Texas is funding the new facilities from its share of the stimulus package.

Virginia should follow Texas’ lead, and re-evaluate which expenditures merit making it into the final budget.

Virginia Plays Politics with Rest Area Closures

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Early this morning, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) went through on its plans and began boarding up rest areas across the state. No one thought that this political game of “chicken” would ever go this far.

VDOT first announced its plans to close rest areas in March, a proposal that was met with almost universal opposition from state residents and motorists. Shortly after announcing the closures, both the Governor and Secretary of Transportation said that they could keep the rest areas open…if Congress would allow them to run businesses there. Because the well-reasoned prohibition against rest area commercialization is a federal law, Virginia was able to shift the blame from Richmond to Washington.

Closing the rest areas in Virginia will save the commonwealth $9 million, or 0.25% of Virginia’s entire transportation budget. In June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approves VDOT’s annual budget, tried to save the rest areas by transferring the $9 million from an increase in the paving budget. According to Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, the amendment failed, with VDOT Secretary Pierce Homer casting the deciding vote.

While VDOT has discussed the rest area issue for several months, no one bothered to formally contact the Virginia congressional delegation to request help in their commercialization efforts until last Wednesday - two days before the House Appropriations Committee met to debate the 2010 transportation appropriations bill. Thankfully, the amendment to allow Virginia to commercialize their rest areas failed, but it will undoubtedly resurface in the coming days.

VDOT has had several opportunities to keep the rest areas open, but ultimately decided closing them was worth it in order to bring them closer to their long-time goal of commercializing their rest areas. Commercialization is not the only way to save Virginia’s rest areas – in fact, it will only result in job losses and a downturn in county and municipal taxes. Rest area commercialization will do far more harm than good to the small cities and towns that rely on interstate highway traffic to sustain their communities.

Wall Street Journal Highlights Issues Surrounding Rest Area Closures

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

The Wall Street Journal underscored the significant problems state governments are facing in maintaining highway rest areas amid budgetary shortfalls in a July 3 article titled “R.I.P: Budget Woes Spell Doom for Roadside Rest Stops.”

The article, written by WSJ reporter Mike Esterl, outlined how states like Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire are pushing to close or commercialize rest areas. But resistance from rest-area defenders, including the National Association of Blind Merchants, AAA, and the American Trucking Associations, is gaining traction and curbing those efforts.

The Partnership to Save Highway Communities supports keeping interstate rest areas open. But it rejects the idea that commercializing rest areas to compete with private businesses is the only way to save them.

Already, several states have launched innovative programs to keep rest areas open without offering food and fuel as the only means of revenue generation.

The Interstate Oasis program, for example, was established by Congress in the 2005 highway reauthorization law and allows businesses operating at interstate highway exits to serve as de facto rest areas. Overseen by the Federal Highway Administration, the Oasis program ensures that participating businesses meet a set of minimum standards to participate. Oregon recently marked the first state in the nation to implement the program.

There are many options for preserving the delicate balance between the need for rest areas and the services offered by existing businesses at interstate exits. Allowing rest areas to compete with existing businesses ranks among the worst and ultimately would reduce services to highway travelers.

Great Start, Long Fight in Commercialization Battle

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Last week, the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee approved a draft of the House version of the highway bill and the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to consider the bill sometime in July. The initial draft does not address the issue of rest area commercialization, leaving the ban completely intact, marking a great start in framing the issue during the reauthorization process.

However, it’s much too early to celebrate. The states of California, Washington and Oregon are still pushing their agenda to commercialize their rest areas and offer alternative fuels in addition to food and other services. Some in the Senate view this as a way to quickly develop an infrastructure for alternative fuels and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. With virtually no demand for these forms of energy, the costs would be offset by other offerings at the newly commercialized rest areas.

While we’re generally pleased with House version of the highway bill, its chances of passage are far from clear at this point. Instead of a long-term full highway bill reauthorization, the Department of Transportation is advocating for a short-term, 18-month extension to current law with “critical reforms” to keep the Highway Trust Fund from insolvency. DOT hasn’t indicated what those reforms are at this point, but given comments by Senator Barbara Boxer, the Senate seems to be leaning towards an extension of the current law. The Obama Administration repeatedly has suggested that some form of privatization should be explored as a revenue source and it isn’t clear what the official Administration position is regarding rest area commercialization.

Budget shortfalls in many states are worsening. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is in the process of closing 19 of its 41 rest areas due to funding issues. In a number of public meetings, members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board suggested that commercialization could save the rest areas, and suggested that Virginians should support overturning the ban. Similar funding scenarios are playing out in states across the country, setting the stage for more state agencies to suggest that commercialization is the answer to some of their funding needs.

So as you can see, the battle on this issue has just begun.