ATA: Closing Virginia rest areas would endanger motorists

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The Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans to close 25 of the state’s 41 interstate highway rest areas because of budget concerns pose a significant safety risk to motorists, the American Trucking Associations said Monday, March 16.

“It is simply beyond comprehension that Virginia would be willing to put lives at risk in order to balance the Commonwealth’s budget,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and chief executive officer, in a recent letter to Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. Rest areas are important for the safety of average motorists and professional truck drivers alike, and both need a safe location to park, said Graves, who served for eight years as governor of Kansas.

“As a former governor, I can appreciate the difficult choices you have to make during these tough economic times,” wrote Graves, who noted that before the rest area closings, VDOT had recognized publicly that Virginia is “deficient in providing adequate parking for commercial vehicles, especially along the I-95 and I-81 corridors.”

According to ATA, VDOT’s Statewide Safety Rest Area and Welcome Center Master Plan Draft states that “the presence of safety rest areas has a direct correlation to a reduction in the number of shoulder-stop and driver fatigue-related accidents.” ATA says closing rest areas would encourage all drivers to make more stops along the shoulders of the highways, a dangerous practice; and would hinder truck drivers’ ability to meet federal hours-of-service regulations. Eliminating nearly all of Virginia’s rest areas in major truck corridors along I-81 and I-95 also may have a negative effect on the movement of consumer goods as motor carriers find alternative routes with better accommodations, according to ATA.

“Gov. Kaine, the trucking industry today has the lowest fatality rate since records began being kept in 1975,” wrote Graves, referring to statistics released recently by the Federal Highway Administration that indicate that the truck-involved fatality rate in 2007 declined 5.8 percent to 2.12 per 100 million miles from 2.25 per 100 million miles in 2006. “This achievement was possible only through a cooperative relationship between the trucking industry and our public sector partners,” Graves wrote. “It would be a shame to squander these hard-won gains due to a temporary lack of resources.”

VDOT proposed the closings as part of its “Blueprint for the Future” at a recent Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting outlining cuts to be made over the next six years. VDOT officials say they selected the rest stops to be closed based on age, condition, visitor count, available services, relationship to tourism and number of truck stops nearby.

VDOT is laying off 450 hourly employees statewide as its first step of cutting staffing costs and will continue staff reductions through 2010. The department is holding meetings this month to obtain feedback on the proposed cuts before CTB makes final plan decisions in June.